Reflecting on interdisciplinary journal clubbing

I come from a physics background, but I spent the past three years running the Ace Journal Club, a group that reads scholarly articles from the interdisciplinary field of asexuality studies. While I was never the sort of person who disrespected the social sciences, my experience with the journal club has enhanced my respect and appreciation.

Asexuality studies is a highly interdisciplinary field, mostly within the social sciences. Looking at our monthly public discussion notes, the most common fields are psychology, sociology, and gender studies. But there have also been a few from communication studies, health sciences, and literature. There are a few odd examples from linguistics, library sciences, and I don’t even know how to classify the paper doing quantitative analysis of romance novels.

An important aspect of the journal club is that we aren’t just reading papers–we’re also discussing them. If I were just reading papers on my own, I would be left on my own to seethe about something the paper said that just didn’t make sense. But since I’m discussing it with other people, some of whom have expertise in the field, they can explain why it says that. OR, more frequently, they explain why it’s even worse than I thought, and then we can complain about it together!

How is it that all these complaints about social science articles lead to greater respect of the social sciences? It shows me that the social sciences are alive.

Social Science as a living science

For those who have never participated in an academic journal club, I have to explain: journal clubs involve a lot of complaining as a matter of course. You might even say they thrive on complaints. I did journal club in physics, and it was the same. We spent most of the time loudly complaining about wild inferences, poor writing, and bad figures.

The truth is, science isn’t entirely contained within the published articles, nor the formal peer review process. The science is contained within the scientific community, and their collective opinions and discussions. Science is a critical practice, and that means that the journal clubs are full of criticism.

The Ace Journal Club is a bit different though, because we have public discussion notes. And we actually mail those discussion notes directly to the authors. I tend to tone the public discussion notes down because talking shit about academic writing might be okay in an informal discussion but inappropriate in public commentary.

Some of those authors may at some point read what I’m writing right now, and realize we were probably much harsher in discussion than it appeared from our public discussion notes. So I have to add this disclaimer: just because we criticize an article, does not mean it was bad work. We do not assume that anything wrong with a paper is necessarily the fault of its authors.  Some problems may be introduced by peer reviewers or academic norms. And scholarly work is just difficult to do in general.  We’re also not the ultimate authority on what’s true, so we can make mistakes or just have different priorities.

But I think most authors already understand. Almost every author thanks us for the discussion. Authors are generally pleased to hear that people within the demographic that they study are interested in their writing.  And our feedback is constructive.

I’m reminded of the whole Sokal affair, in which a physicist submitted a fake article to a cultural studies journal. Something that people generally miss is that Sokal was primarily focused on a particular field known as “Science and Technology Studies” (STS), basically the study of the social practice of science. One of Sokal’s major contentions was that scholars in that field could not distinguish between good and bad articles, as long as they made superficial nods to agreeable politics. In other words, when a field is gobbledygook, there’s no real way to distinguish “good” gobbledygook from “bad” gobbledygook. Independent of whether there are problems with STS, I find this particular argument flawed–just because his fake paper passed peer review doesn’t mean that scholars thought it was good. Lots of published papers are bad, even in physics. If an STS journal club discussed the article, what harsh criticisms would they raise?

Anyway, I can see from my experience with the journal club, that this plainly isn’t true of the social sciences that we cover. People in social sciences definitely can tell the difference between good and bad arguments. They can explain the differences, even to a mere ex-physicist.

It’s kind of a running joke in the journal club. A lot of times, I read a paper and think, that was pretty good. Then a few days later I get to the journal club discussion, and the people with social science backgrounds will explain persuasively how actually it was not good, and there were so many things that could have been done better. And I love it.

When your research subject gazes back

I do have some sympathy for Sokal though, because we’re in a similar position. He was a scientist responding to scholarly work studying scientists. Likewise, the Ace journal club is a bunch of aces responding to scholarly work studying aces. This is an interesting dynamic that doesn’t occur in physics–I never had a superconductor directly rebut anything I ever said about them (although they did some frustrating things to the lasers I shot at them).

While some of the journal club participants have backgrounds in social science, more broadly, we’re experts of a different sort, in that we’ve been directly experiencing it and have been discussing it with other people who directly experience it. We can tell when an argument doesn’t ring true, or if there are additional factors that the authors ignored.  (Also, FWIW I am a director of the Ace Community Survey, which gives me another kind of expertise, and leads me to be commonly cited in the papers we discuss.)

So here are a few observations from an ace perspective:

  1.  In nearly every paper, we tend to criticize definitions. Often the definitions are presented too rigidly or prescriptively, which would be fine if you were constructing an operational definition, but seems inappropriate when you’re defining an identity label that a whole group uses.
  2. Academics seem very reticent to directly cite any ace community sources, preferring to cite academic discussion. We think some of this may come from peer review, since peer reviewers will enforce this norm even if the authors don’t personally agree with it. But sometimes it’s like, we can tell where you got this from but you just won’t give us credit. Other times, it’s like, academics are going to repeat the same mistake forever, because they’re only allowed to cite prior literature, and the prior literature got it wrong.
  3. There are a lot of papers that draw conclusions that we find fairly obvious. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as one of the functions of research is to verify that which we had merely assumed was true. But it takes on a different shape when, it’s not that we didn’t know it was true, it just hadn’t been stated within the academic literature, which as you know is the only thing they’re allowed to cite. Sometimes it feels like what we’re saying is just being laundered through research.

    Aces: Here’s our experience.
    Outsider: I dunno… what does the science say?
    Scientist: I can answer that!
    Scientist: *whispers to aces* So tell me about your experience.
    Scientist: Okay, here’s what aces experience.
    Outsider: Gee, thanks, science!

  4. Every dimension matters all at once, but research can never cover it all at once. Gender matters. Race matters. Class matters. Autism matters. Different parts of the ace spectrum matter. Relationship experiences matter. Age matters. Nationality matters. Everything. Why can’t every article cover everything? Oh, their sample size isn’t large enough. I guess that makes sense.
  5. This isn’t common, but there are a few examples of researchers criticizing the ace community for being insufficiently critical of this or that. This comes across as weird because hello we’re right here, and have been actively talking about it for years. Although to be fair, we do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the ace community at large, and there are certainly many critiques that we would agree with.

Despite our common criticisms, I think the academic literature will get better over time. I hope the Ace journal club can play its part in making it better over time.

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