Wednesday, September 16, 2020

What the Heck is Post-Positivism?

If you are someone who knows a lot about philosophy of science (or pretends to), then this post is not for you. Stop reading now, because you will just get mad at my oversimplistic explanations. You may even say I am “wrong.” Guess what, this post is not for you, so I don’t care[1].

This post is for the many, many, students and professors of psychology who have essentially zero working knowledge of philosophy of science. If you hear someone say, “yeah, but that is such a post-positivistic approach” or “from a critical perspective we think about that quite differently,” and are wondering what the heck those people are talking about, then this is for you. That’s all you will get here, the “heck” without any of the elaboration or nuance. I find it astonishing and concerning that we do not even ensure heck-level training in these issues among our undergraduate students, let alone our graduate students. But so it goes.

Philosophy of science is a multi-layered labyrinth of schools of thought, terms, and debates, and I have no intention of covering anywhere near all of it here. Rather, I focus on a constrained set of what are often referred to as paradigms, meta-theoretical orientations, or even sometimes just philosophies of science: positivism, post-positivism, constructivism, and criticalism[2]. These four paradigms serve as broad meta-theoretical orientations that correspond with particular philosophies of science (see, all three terms are useful!).  

Just about every scholar in psychology is situated within one of these four paradigms, whether they know it or not. This is one of the reasons this issue is so important: most don’t actually seem to know that they are approaching their research and teaching from a particular philosophy of science. But just because you don’t know about it doesn’t mean that it is not there, lurking in the background, having an influence over your approach to science. Additionally, for some, conflict with colleagues, systems, or even within their own beliefs can be traced back to conflicting underlying paradigms. Although this knowledge does not solve the conflict, it does provide better direction for potential resolution.

Yeah so anyway, what the heck is post-positivism? I will contrast the four approaches along four commonly-used “ologies”: ontology, epistemology, axiology, and methodology. Yes, yes, more terms that you may need to learn. Depending on your familiarity with them, you will have at most eight terms to learn (four paradigms by four ologies)—eight. That is within 7 +/- 2, so you should be good[3].

Briefly, ontology relates to the nature of what can be known (truth/reality), epistemology to the relationship between what can be known and the person doing the knowing, axiology to the role of values and beliefs in the knowledge-generating process, and methodology to the process through which knowledge is acquired.

There is near complete non-overlap in the nature of these four ologies across the four paradigms[4]. Rather than bore you further with my prose, I will bore you with a table:

Ok great, so what to do with all of this information? First, it would be a useful exercise to locate yourself in the table (your present and/or past selves). Perhaps you align perfectly with one of the paradigms; if you work in “mainstream psychology,” then chances are high that you align pretty well with the positivistic or post-positivistic paradigms. This is how “the field” tends to like to position itself, and most prestigious institutions, journals, and funding bodies are squarely planted within these approaches.

If, on the other hand, you do not identify much with mainstream psychology and feel like you tend to do things a little differently, you are probably aligned with the constructivist paradigm, and if you really feel like your approach is out there, and take issues of societal power/oppression/privilege seriously in your work, you are probably aligned with the critical paradigm.

But most likely if you feel you are out of the mainstream, you do not actually align perfectly with constructivism or criticalism, but rather blend a little bit from more than one paradigm. This could especially be the case if your approach has changed over the years. This tension of paradigms is well explained by the fact that psychology is dominated by positivism/post-positivism, but the subject matter, and how people want to study it, lends itself to all four paradigms. And because very few of us are actually educated on these matters, we have had no opportunity to sort it all out.

Some of these conflicts are evident in contemporary discourse around the role of race and racism in psychology (and science more broadly). In particular, they reflect disagreements about the place of axiology within our field. From a mainstream positivistic/post-positivistic perspective, we can and should make every effort to separate our values from our work. When people say to judge individuals by their scientific contributions and not their personal beliefs or character, they are arguing from a positivistic/post-positivistic perspective. Calls for the field to be explicitly anti-racist, on the other hand, are calls to not only inject values into the scientific process, but to surface the role of racist values and beliefs that have been there all along. These are calls to bring a critical paradigm to the field, and therefore it is no surprise that many/most in the field become uncomfortable with such a call.

So yeah, these paradigms matter. They matter for understanding not only what we do, but also for how we might want to change. A proposal for an anti-racist psychology that situates itself firmly within a positivistic/post-positivistic paradigm is likely to be much more well-received than one situated within a critical paradigm. But is doing so desirable or even possible? That is a topic for another day.

Thanks, as always, to Kate McLean for ensuring this post was (reasonably) coherent. This post is essay no. 8 in the series, “I Got a Lot of Problems with Psychology.”

[1] Really, I don’t care, so find some other clouds to yell at.

[2] A reviewer of a paper once did not like me using “criticalism” because this paradigm is more commonly known as “critical theory.” I prefer the “ism” form to stay parallel with the other paradigms and, like most psychologists, I would prefer not to get into a serious discussion of what constitutes a “theory.”

[3] Yes, memory people, I understand that this is not how it works.

[4] It is the case that quantitative research is often considered positivistic/post-positivistic and qualitative research considered constructivist. I cannot get into it here, but this is false. Methodologies tend to align with paradigms in practice, but are not essential to them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A Workflow for Dealing with the Dread of Revising and Resubmitting Manuscripts

(Note: This post was updated on 8/5/20, 10:00pm CDT, in response to helpful comments from Sanjay Srivastava, Bobbie Spellman, Jennifer Pfeifer, and Fred Oswald). 

You find a message in your inbox with the subject “Development Psychology - Decision on Manuscript ID 2020-8561” or the like. You anxiously open the email, simultaneously reading too slowly and too quickly while searching the editor’s terse prose for keywords that signal your fate: reject, accept, revise, resubmit. You finally exhale with glee upon determining that you have been invited to revise and resubmit. You read the editor’s comments, which seldom provide anything helpful at all, and then begin reading the reviewer comments. Quickly you wonder if they read your article very carefully, and soon you wonder if they read it at all. And who is this person, and do they even know this area of research? How could Reviewer 2 be so off-base? You angrily forward the message to your co-authors to share the “good news,” indicating that you will follow-up with a plan before long. Your day is shot as you ruminate on the stupidity of the reviewers (not just the comments, but the entire existence of the reviewers) and the futility of possibly addressing their comments. A few days pass—maybe a week—and you re-read the decision letter. You realize that the reviewers actually made some important and thoughtful points, and the revisions will not be so bad after all. With some hard work the paper will get published. All you have to do is start addressing the comments. No problem. What was the deadline again? You have plenty of time to work on that later.

I wrote the above in the second person, but I was describing my reaction to every revise-and-resubmit I have ever received. My guess is that many of you respond in the same way. These are the seven universal stages of the revise and resubmit[1]: Anxiety, Anticipation, Elation, Confusion, Anger, Acceptance, and Dread.

That is the emotional process that we all go through, and all should go through—there is nothing wrong with it and I am not interested in altering it. My aim here is to outline a workflow that addresses the Dread stage: how to make progress on revising a manuscript when you are overwhelmed by the comments and necessary revisions? I have found this method to be highly effective, and those I have shared it with have agreed, so I figured I would write it up.

The main goal of this approach is to reduce feeling overwhelmed by the necessary work through breaking down the tasks bit by bit and clearly marking the progress made. A secondary outcome of this approach is that it is efficient, as you prepare the cover letter at the same time as you make the revisions, rather than treating the two as separate tasks.

There are seven steps[2] to this process:

Step 1: Copy and paste the full letter into a new document. I like to use Google Docs because it facilitates sharing with co-authors, but I also know that sharing can be accomplished in many different ways. Use whatever you want, this is not important. Just create a new document.

Step 2: Delete all extraneous information unrelated to the revision. Most of what is included in the Editor’s portion of the letter is stock language that has no relevance to what you need to do. Delete this. Reviewers sometimes provide summaries of your paper, or make other general comments that do not have implications for the revision. Delete these. If there is no action to be taken, then it should not be in this document. That said, it can be strategic to leave praise from the reviewers in the letter to remind the editor of the value of the paper. In such cases, your response can be a brief "thank you."

Step 3: Parse the letter into substantive comments. Make a new paragraph for each substantive comment made by the reviewers, with spaces in between. Sometimes reviewers make multiple different points in the same paragraph, so it is good to separate these into distinct paragraphs. Each chunk represents an action item. It can be helpful to number these comments, even if the reviewers did not do so, for ease of referencing throughout the letter (e.g., "As stated in the response to Reviewer 5, Comment 57....").

Oof, lots to do here!

Step 4: Mark all of these comments in bold and highlight them in yellow (or whatever color you like). The bold indicates that these are editors/reviewer comments (vs. your own) and the yellow indicates that the comments have not been addressed. 

Step 5: Make notes. Underneath each comment write some quick notes about how to handle the issue, using all caps or some other method to clearly signify that these are notes. These comments should be un-bolded and un-highlighted. Focus these notes on whether you will or will not revise, which section of the paper needs to be revised, and who on the team should handle the task. I also use these notes to express frustration and anger, because I find that helps. Maybe that is just me! You do you. As you make your notes about how to proceed, remember you do not have to make all of the requested changes--in fact, editors do not expect you to do so. Sometimes reviewers make mistakes or provide just plain bad advice. In such cases, provide a reasonable justification for why you are not making the change. 

Step 6. Start small. Start the revision process in this document, which will become the cover letter you submit with the revision. Go through and find the super easy stuff to take care of. You will always have a reviewer who loves to point out typos[3] or supposed violations of APA Style[4]. Take care of these first. They take almost no brain power and will instill a sense of progress. Below the reviewer comment, first replace your all-caps notes with a normal written response of what you did, THEN go into the manuscript and make the associated change. This will be a general principle to follow: change the cover letter document first, then the manuscript. Although this may seem backwards, developing your rationale for the change can help you think through how to actually make the change. This is a principle, however, not a law, so sometimes you will make the change in the manuscript and then summarize it in the letter. When responding, include the page numbers where readers can find the changes, and consider quoting the exact text of the change when relevant. 

Look at that progress!

Step 7: Un-highlight the reviewer comment to indicate that the issue has been resolved. This is the best part of the approach. As you take care of reviewer comments you can clearly see what has been done and what remains to be done. As you progress, the document becomes less and less yellow. Taking care of all of the easy changes will lead to a bunch of un-yellowing. Oftentimes reviewers will bloviate about a banal point—take care of this quickly and get yourself a massive wall of un-yellow. Multiple reviewers often make the same point. Make notes about the response the first time the point is raised, then write “see response to Reviewer 1” and go ahead and un-yellow. You make progress without doing any work at all, and THAT, my friends, is living the dream. 

Ah, the best

Before long, all of the yellow highlighting will be gone and you will be finished. As noted, a bonus of using an approach like this is that the cover letter is finished when the revision is finished. They are part of the same process. Slap some greetings and gratitudes at the beginning and then steel yourself for the fresh hell of navigating the online submission portal.

Kind, to the point, and no begging

[1] To be clear, I don’t believe in stages.

[2] Steps are not stages, so they are totally fine

[3] Reviewers, don’t do this.

[4] Don’t do this either.