Thursday, April 20, 2017

On That Time a Journal Rejected my Paper because it was Related to Culture

Many people, especially ethnic minority scholars, tell stories about how they did not get a fair shake at a journal due to the fact that their papers were related to cultural and/or ethnic minority psychology. 

Just recently, Qi Wang opened her paper, “Why should we all be cultural psychologists?” with an anecdote of this happening to her:

Not long ago, I submitted an article to a journal specialized in my area of research. Within days, I heard back from the action editor, an eminent cognitive psychologist whose work I admire. In her e-mail, she informed me that she had decided not to send the manuscript out for review because cross-cultural research did not fit well enough with the goals of the journal. Really? I could not believe my eyes. I took another look at the journal’s Aims and Scope, which clearly states that the journal covers “human” conceptual processes, memory, learning, problem solving, and more. Ironically, all these aspects of cognition have been shown to be susceptible to cultural influences. If the journal indeed tries to exclude cross-cultural research, then “WEIRD human”—that is, from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic societies (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010)—would be a more accurate description in its Aims and Scope. I wrote back and copied my e-mail to the editor-in-chief, hoping to engage them in a constructive discussion, but never heard back from either. (Wang, 2016, p. 583[1])

I was a reviewer of Wang’s paper, and urged her to name the journal, to make this phenomenon known and hold the journal accountable. She chose not to do so, which I understand but do not agree with. For one thing, if this perspective is de facto journal policy, then potential authors have a right to know. But even more so, I fear that some people who have not experienced this treatment may not believe us, thinking that we are paranoid and seeking alternative explanations for why a weak paper was rejected.

So here I provide concrete evidence that should convince even the most hardened skeptic that this is a real thing.  To be clear, it is true that it is not always clear-cut that the reason for the rejection is the focus on culture/ethnic minorities. Sometimes you have to read between the lines. Not in this case. This case is so remarkable because it is so dang clear.

Below is a series of emails between me and first, the manuscript coordinator, and second, the editor, regarding a paper I submitted to Personality and Individual Differences. This was some years ago now, and I did not seek approval from these people to include their names, so I omit them below. I also removed some additional text that was not directly pertinent to my point here, but none of the words or meanings have been altered.

The initial decision email (in full):

Dear Dr. Moin Syed,

The Editors have now examined your above referenced manuscript and unfortunately cannot accept it for publication in Personality and Individual Differences.

This article would be more appropriate for a journal such as the International Journal of Intercultural Relations.

We thank you for providing us with the opportunity to consider your manuscript.

Yours sincerely,


Brief and to the point: more appropriate for a journal focused on cultural issues, but no indication why. So I followed up:

Thanks, XXXX.

I am a bit confused about why the article is not appropriate for PAID. The aims and scopes of the journal state an interest in papers that focus on the "the traditional type of work on traits, abilities, attitudes, types and other latent structures underlying consistencies in behavior." The article I submitted examines traits and identity motives predicting attitudes. That sounds right in line with the aims to me. Is it because the attitudes I examined were cultural? Is PAID not interested in culturally-related research?

I am following up so as to better understand what PAID is interested in publishing, because, as I stated, it seems that the content of my paper is congruent with the stated emphasis of the journal (it could, of course, be rejected for other reasons).

Thank you for your time.


The reply I received:

Dear Dr. Moin Syed,

I have received the editors response  - although your work is in general in line with PAID, we do, however, tend not to focus on papers which look at cultural issues.



I could not believe that they would be so matter of fact about it. At this point I felt like I needed to communicate directly with the editor to get more information. My opening salvo:

Dear XXXX,

I am writing you in regards to a paper that I recently submitted to Personality and Individual Differences, which was rejected without review. Let me be clear up front: I am not appealing the decision and the paper has been submitted elsewhere. Rather, I had some questions pertaining to the policies of the journal.

In the decision letter I was informed that the paper was not appropriate for the journal. I was surprised to hear this, as the paper examines personality traits and identity motives as predictors of cultural beliefs, which, on the surface, appears to be well-aligned with the stated focus of the journal. I contacted the Managing Editor, XXXX, about my concerns, asking if the reason it was deemed inappropriate is because PAID is not interested in culturally-related research. After checking with the Editor, XXXX indicated that PAID was generally not interested in papers that examine cultural issues.

I am contacting you because I was hoping to get clarity on the scope of research that PAID is interested in publishing. I enjoy reading the journal and very much respect its position in the discipline, and would like be clear on whether my research would ever be suitable for its pages.

I have attached a copy of the paper as well as the complete email record of my correspondence with XXXX. Please let me know if you have any questions.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Respectfully yours,


And the reply:

Dear Moin: thank you for your e-mail.

The reason for this decision was indeed that PAID tends not to accept papers that deal with cultural or cross-cultural issues.

Your future research would certainly be of interest to PAID insofar as its focus is on personality and related constructs in their own right rather than in a cultural or cross-cultural context.

Best wishes,


Still aghast, I really needed more answers:


Thank you for your quick response and clarifying remarks. I am surprised to hear of a journal that explicitly rejects cultural research. I know you are very busy, but I would be interested to hear your rationale for why you feel there is little cause for considering the cultural nature of personality and IDs within the pages of PAID. 

Thanks again for your response,


Alas, I never received a response.

[1] Wang, Q. (2016). Why should we all be cultural psychologists? Lessons from the study of social cognition. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(5), 583-596.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

How I Got My Job

Recently on the PsychMAP Facebook page ( Julia Rohrer asked for faculty to tell stories about how they got their jobs. Because I share my story often, I figured I would write it up and post here.

I was on the job market (North America) for faculty positions in the autumn of 2008. I only applied to a handful of “dream” schools, figuring I would apply more broadly the following year (I had funding to stay in school). Shortly after I submitted all of my applications, the financial crisis hit and about half of the schools I applied to cancelled their searches. Many of the other searches were in doubt. This was clearly a bad situation: not only would there be few jobs available that year, but the following year would be even worse, given that there would continue to be few jobs available yet a surplus of job seekers. Let’s just say it was stressful.

I was very, very close to not applying to the job that I ultimately landed (and still have). The deadline was far earlier than most of the others, they required ridiculously short application essays (500 words each), and the position was an open-area “multicultural” psychologist, but the department did not have a developmental area (my primary field). Oh, and I was most certainly dubious of living in Minnesota, being a life-long Coastal Californian.

But, at the very last second, I decided to just send it in. I ignored their restrictive word count and just submitted my very long research, teaching, and diversity statements[1]. I was quite surprised when I received an invitation to interview a few weeks later.

The visit was great. I enjoyed the people, the department, and could see myself developing a career there. The critical aspect of the U.S. academic interview is the job talk. That is when the most people, who represent broad interests in the department, can evaluate your scholarship and teaching ability. A critical aspect of the job talk is the question and answer period immediately after. Many people can give a very nice scripted talk, but the Q&A shows what kind of scholar you really are; how you think and reason on the fly, and what knowledge you are able to spontaneously conjure when making your points. I have seen candidates secure the job with an impressive Q&A, but more often I have seen candidates lose the job with a very poor Q&A. Anyway, I felt like my talk and Q&A went really well, and was confident about my chances.

A few weeks later I received the call from the Chair: I was second in line. If the person offered the job ahead of me turned it down, then I would get the offer.  I was disappointed but hopeful.

Importantly, amidst all of this, the University of Minnesota was in a “hiring pause” due to the economy. This meant they were not certain they could even hire for my position, but were going through the process anyway just in case. So, they could not formally offer the position to the person ahead of me. This dragged on for a few weeks, and the first candidate had an offer elsewhere and was being pressured to make a decision. Going with the sure thing, the first candidate turned down the Minnesota “offer” and took the other job. Shortly thereafter, the hiring pause was lifted and I was offered the job. A few days later I had an interview at another excellent school, but I did not like it as much as Minnesota, so I withdrew my candidacy from that position and accepted the Minnesota job.

A few things I learned from this process: I had two campus interviews, which were from arguably the two “best” schools I applied to. Why did I get campus interviews at these schools but not so much as a nibble from the others? These two positions had a common feature that the others did not share: they both mentioned wanting a cultural psychologist. The others schools were mostly seeking a developmental psychologist, with no mention of a particular focus. So, apparently, I was an attractive candidate for a cultural psychologist position, but not so much for a developmental psychologist position.

I did not expect that type of response at all, but it drove home a point that many others have made: you never know how people will perceive you. Because of this, it is important that as a candidate you do not self-select out of positions, thinking that you would not be a good fit. If the school looks attractive to you, then go ahead and apply and let them decide whether or not they think you are a good fit. There is always a lot more to the job than what appears in the job posting, and you may have some particular focus that the department is quite interested in, but did not include in the posting. I was so very, very close to not applying to the University of Minnesota. Crazy world.  

[1] Generally speaking, I do not advise doing this; it is best to provide the materials as they are requested. However, if the difference is submitting the wrong materials or not applying at all, go ahead and submit the wrong materials. Now that I have been on the other side, I know that the search committee does not care about the length of the essays, and aren’t even aware that they are supposed to be so short.