“On publishing”: An interview with Daniel Kleinman

Daniel Lee Kleinman, Associate Provost for Graduate Affairs at Boston University, is a widely published scholar in STS. He is also the founding editor of Engaging Science, Technology, and Society (ESTS). The SKAT Mentoring Committee asked Daniel to talk about his experiences publishing in STS and his advice for junior scholars navigating the publishing world. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

On persistence and digesting reviewer feedback

Q: When you’ve had experiences of rejection, how have you decided whether something is worth pursuing in a different space or just letting it fall to the wayside?

DK: Probably success in anything demands persistence and as somebody who works in STS, and probably even if you did other areas in sociology, you’d be aware that there’s a lot of arbitrariness. It’s not really meritocratic. That’s all the more reason to be persistent and often to be strategic. Okay, I want to write this kind of piece, where is this likely to fly? There’s an outside chance that AJS (the American Journal of Sociology) might be interested in it. Should I give it a shot, or not? So I’d say, at least a third of the scholarly papers I’ve published were rejected places before I got them into journals. Others, maybe two thirds, ended up with a revise and resubmit and got published. But one third were rejected before they were accepted elsewhere. I remember hearing an excellent story by Beth Popp Berman when she received one of the SKAT awards for a paper that it was ultimately published in Theory & Society. It won the award, but had been rejected three times before. And I just think that that’s pretty common. So I think you should read the reviews, and they might say things that would help you make the paper better. It’s also possible that they won’t. Sometimes it is just clear that it wasn’t the right venue for the work. So, sometimes you’re going to get stuff that’s going to be helpful and it’s going to help you make a stronger paper or book or whatever it is. And sometimes you’re not. And I actually, I think learning how to make those judgments is part of becoming a scholar – when the critique is something that you really need to take into account.

Q: How do you learn to make those determinations?

DK: Let’s say you submitted a kind of STS paper, but you thought maybe it was going to be of interest to the broader social audience and you submitted to AJS and it gets rejected and the reviewers have substantive critiques about the way you use evidence. Well, okay. Think about those. Are those critiques compelling? Maybe you show it to a friend, maybe you show it to your advisor. See what they think. Are they saying something like really you need to engage the literature in organizational sociology and you’re thinking, “Man, no, that’s not really what I want to do.” I think if there are compelling substantive critiques, then you have to think about them. If there are critiques about genre and literatures, that’s less likely. One of the things that happens in the scholarly world is, especially with the bigger journals, is you could end up with two, three, four reviews and they might say very, very different things. And if there’s a good editor, the editor will say, “Hey, you’ve got four reviews. They contradict each other, pay attention to reviewer A.”  If they don’t say that, you’re in a difficult spot. And it may be that that’s not the journal.

On pursuing new genres of scholarly writing at ESTS

Q: In terms of thinking about placing empirical pieces, how do you think about shorter forms of writing (e.g. ESTS “Critical Engagements” and “Considering Concepts”) versus the longer empirical, research article?

DK: So I think what we trying to do is to kind of push scholarly discussion in a little bit different direction. To say: “Not everything needs to be a research article.” I think we know that that’s happening because people have blogs and there are all sorts of ways that scholars are communicating. I think in 2019 for a junior scholar, if you’re seeking an academic position or you have one depending on where you are, the research article is going to be the thing people are still going to pay attention to, which in my opinion is just messed up. But it is a reality. So if I were guiding a junior scholar who was, let’s say at a research one (R1) university, I would say only do the “Considering Concepts” or the “Critical Engagement” if you feel you have some extra time. You know, don’t allow it to [distract] from what will be a dossier that your colleagues will be looking at in a few years. If you’re at a liberal arts college, for example, I would say talk to your colleagues and say, “Hey, there’s this journal. They’ve published these different things. How will you think about that when I come up for tenure?” So that said, we have had junior scholars who’ve done both of those things. And I’m glad about it. I think among other things they require less investment, right? So it is possible–depending on how fast a writer you are, I think, you could do these things without hurting your other work.

The critical engagement pieces are meant to be more or less like scholarly op-eds, translating what you’re doing into something that is of public and policy relevance. They are about using an STS lens to talk about something topical. Let’s say bias in, in algorithms for example, would be a good example. And you can say some things that draw a little bit on scholarly literature, aren’t too deep, get the point pretty quickly. And you can do that in — it shouldn’t take too long to do it. Although we push on the writing quality somewhat more than we do on the research articles.

Regarding the considering concepts genre, I think a lot of scholarly work is too long. It’s repetitive. It meanders a lot. It doesn’t get to the point. I’ll just say, I have rarely an experience where an editor said to cut 20% where I haven’t cut it and thought the paper was better. In other words, [the papers have] been better when they’ve said to do that because I’ve cut off stuff that was unnecessary. But in this case, the idea is that, a lot of us may have made a presentation at a conference where we’re developing a concept, we have data, we haven’t really worked all the way through it, but why not get it out there as a concept and provide a brief discussion of the data, and how the concept would apply to the data. We don’t sort of hold it to the same standards that we do a research article. It’s like, is this an interesting concept? Is it well articulated? Is it appropriately applied to the data?

Q: I think that maybe something that a lot of junior people feel is that there is this big thing happening and you kind of want to get it right. It almost feels risky to put something out there in a public space when it’s almost like there hasn’t been enough time or something to watch it play out…

DK: I’ve been alive and active as a scholar long enough to have contradicted myself. My views have changed. I don’t think that that’s terrible. Sure, if you said something really stupid, but that’s what the screen is for! That’s why we send them out for peer review. You have to have said something that we and the reviewer [thought] was worth saying, otherwise it won’t get published.

On publishing in the mainstream media

Q: What sort of outlets have you published in, especially in mainstream media?

DK: I’ve published books with university presses, and at least one, maybe two with commercial presses. I’ve actually mostly published in STS journals as far as journals go, although I have published in a few sociology journals, including Theory and Society, Socioeconomic Review, Sociological Quarterly, Sociological Forum.  I’ve published in The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, [and] Technology Review.  When I was at the University of Wisconsin, I published kind of regularly in their local newspapers, meaning once every other year.

Q: Was this [publishing in the mainstream media] something that you had thought about throughout your career? Was it something that you came to later?

DK: Yeah. even as I was getting started and before this term — became a thing — I wanted to be a “public intellectual.” Obviously I’m not as public and as extensive as some people, but it was a thought of mine from the very beginning. And in fact, I think as a graduate student, [there was] the Technology Review piece I coauthored with my advisor and I think we published an op ed piece or two when I was a grad student.

Q: In terms of selecting what work to place in more public spaces versus academic ones, how do you decide whether it’s something that you want to put out there?

DK: I think the answer is it has to be pretty topical and, you know, I’ve submitted pieces that haven’t been published too. Both scholarly pieces and mainstream media kind of pieces. I think you need to tie topical things to something that really grabs people that’s really relevant, or pretty likely we’ll become dated. So, I wasn’t able to put as much effort into this as I would’ve liked, but when the Trump administration recently changed some policies on honeybees, my collaborator and I used that opportunity to, to try to talk about this issue. We weren’t actually successful. But I do think the strategy we used is exactly the right one, which is, “Hey, there was something that was just in the news” and then use that thing that was in the news as a way to speak more generally.

I hope people who are in younger generations as scholars will do this kind of work. I think it’s really important. I think that people in STS have things to say that would be valuable. I also think that higher education and the scholarly world is changing and that kind of stuff is becoming more valued and valuable.


Daniel Lee Kleinman’s research has focused on the social organization of scientific research and the transformation of higher education in the US. He has multiple published books, including Politics on the Endless Frontier: Postwar Research Policy in the United States (Duke University Press, 1995), Impure Cultures: University Biology and the World of Commerce (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and Science and Technology in Society: From Biotechnology to the Internet (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005). Most recently, he co-authored Vanishing Bees: Science, Politics, and Honey Bee Health (Rutgers University Press, 2017) with Sainath Suryanarayanan. Throughout his career, Daniel has published in scholarly outlets as well as in the mainstream media, including articles in The Guardian and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Daniel spent most of his career at University of Wisconsin, Madison where he served as Senior Associate Dean (and previously as Associate Dean for Social Sciences) in the Graduate School and was Professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. He holds a BA in Social History from Haverford College and an MS and PhD in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


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