I have good reason to believe that political party X engages in harmful practice Y more than other political parties. The numbers stack up, it fits into the theories presented in other papers, and so on. Content-wise, I believe there is enough for a paper on the topic.

However, I am concerned about the long-term career potential of this, as this would be my first paper (I'm still an undergraduate student) and there are downsides to appearing as a naive partisan hack. Is such a paper worth pursuing, and if it is, how should I best go about minimizing that potential drawback?

  • 6
    Can you provide a country? I ask because there's a big difference between having partisan implications in some countries (where free speech is more or less assured) verus others (where this type of paper might get you killed).
    – tonysdg
    Jun 16 '16 at 15:07
  • 1
    Sure thing, I added the US tag just now. Jun 16 '16 at 15:09
  • 8
    Building off of @CaptainEmacs 's comment, you could also try to restructure the paper so as to focus on the harmful practice Y more than political party X. Then you can also try to find examples of other political parties that have done Y, further strengthening your hypothesis.
    – tonysdg
    Jun 16 '16 at 15:27
  • 3
    Are there professors you can discuss this with?
    – Kimball
    Jun 16 '16 at 21:31
  • 4
    Sadly, I think the negative ramifications depend completely on the value of X. Nov 3 '16 at 15:52

A politically-focused paper may harm your standing among those with an opposing viewpoint. This perhaps should not happen, but it's an unfortunate reality of human nature.

If you publish a paper that could be interpreted as "party X is worse than Y", people (even scientists) are going to read that through a lens of their own biases, to some extent. If they support party X, they may be less likely to believe your conclusions, more likely to challenge you, and/or have an emotional reaction against it. Some people will be able to be impartial and rise above their biases; for others, this may lead to a final judgement about you.

How much this harms you may depend on which side you take. There have been many studies showing that college professors tend to overwhelmingly favor one side of the political debate in America. Here is just one example. This effect is far more extreme in some fields than others.

So, another unfortunate reality is that, depending on the side your paper favors, the results may be very different for your career. You might be confirming the beliefs of 95% of your colleagues, or you might be challenging those beliefs. I hate to say this, because it sounds like a suggestion of "only do this if your finding matches the existing orthodoxy", which is a highly unscientific approach. But I do think this point needs to be acknowledged.

A political paper may get a lot more attention than the average paper. Papers like "adherents of party X pick their nose a lot more than adherents of party Y" make great headlines and often get picked up by the media. They are second only to studies claiming that chocolate, beer, etc. are good for you, in terms of press appeal.

More publicity for you is typically a good thing (assuming you are doing good work). The fact that you published a well-known paper can be a great thing to have on your CV. On the other hand, it does raise the stakes. Your paper would be subject to a lot more scrutiny than normal.

In the end, only you can make this decision; there are risks. But my feeling would be evaluate this very carefully, but do go ahead with it if you think it would make a high quality paper. Some points on how to proceed:

  • Don't move forward without someone experienced on board. Make sure you can get some good, respected people's input. Ask them about the general idea before you start, and make sure someone more experienced than you is willing to contribute and be an author if you do go ahead with it.
  • Work hard to overcome your own biases. I would try hard to find someone with an opposing political viewpoint to review it, to make sure I'm not missing something obvious because of my own bias. There may be an alternative reading of the data which I haven't seen, because I'm predisposed to think ill of party X.
  • Do the work meticulously. If this paper does get attention, any error or methodological issue is likely to get picked up. Make sure you do everything very carefully, document all your methods, test thoroughly, etc. (Of course you should always do this).
  • Report the findings in as evenhanded a way as possible. Don't take unnecessary political potshots. Don't assume bad intent where your results don't warrant it. And think about the title you want to give it. Do you want it to say "Party X is more evil than party Y" or something generic like "The relationship between Foo and party affiliation".
  • Make sure not to claim too much. Be clear about the limitations of what your work actually shows. It's quite common to see papers that jump to unwarranted conclusions or assume causality where they haven't shown that. Steer clear of such things. Make sure to be clear about your limitations, and if there are multiple possible interpretations of the results, make sure to discuss them all.
  • 2
    Re “raising the stakes”: it’s dangerous to play for high stakes when you’re inexperienced, and the OP said this would be their first paper. Everyone makes some mistakes in their early work, and problems which would be read charitably in an uncontroversial paper may be attacked harshly in a political one. So I would urge them to be very careful to make sure they have a more experienced colleague on board, if they pursue this.
    – PLL
    Nov 4 '16 at 12:19
  • @PLL, I agree, and I have edited to make this clearer.
    – user24098
    Nov 4 '16 at 12:48

I would not do this in your case, for the following reasons:

  1. As an undergraduate, you almost certainly lack the skills to do top-notch research. That's not to say it's impossible, but there's a reason a PhD researcher takes many more years of much harder courses. The work I did as an undergrad, even one project I won an award for, looks pretty naive to me now. Therefore, putting out partisan research now is very risky; a lot more so than when you're more confident your research can withstand scrutiny.

  2. Related to number 1, if your research suggests one party is doing something better than another, it may be disproportionally harmful if your results come about due to poor methodology. As others have said, both national and local media loves to pick up this sort of research, and it isn't always critically evaluated.

  3. Even if you were able to find a full professor who was willing to work with you on this idea, and get it into a professional journal instead of publishing somewhere that accepts undergraduate work, the professor is facing a very different set of risks than you. Their career may already be established, particularly if they're tenured, so they're risking a lot less by publishing controversial research than you are.

Instead I would suggest two alternate approaches:

  • Shelve the idea and work on it after you've advanced into graduate school, or even beyond, when you're better able to do defensible research and/or are more secure in your research career.
  • Refocus the research to be non-partisan. Focus on "harmful practice Y", for example, and leave drawing any partisan implications to the reader.

It's good you're having research ideas as an undergraduate, so don't be discourage by this. It's easy to get excited about research ideas, particularly early in your research training, and feel like it's the only good idea you'll ever have. In reality you'll have lots of research ideas, and most of them will almost certainly be better than your first.


If you'd like your thoughts and opinions to be directly connected to yourself as a person and follow you as a mark of the understanding you hold for others to openly judge based on their own beliefs, then write a paper with your name attached. Then your writing will be associated with you as your own assessment of the situation at the time.

However, if you're willing to sacrifice any benefit (or harm) that may come with the reprecussions of such an action, there are platforms where you can publish "open letters" anonymously such as http://www.opnlttr.com/about

The advantage here is that you can gather your thoughts, assemble them, and make your case without needing to worry that your words will haunt you for ever afterwards and close opportunities that would otherwise be available.

  • 3
    -1: the OP is asking about publishing research, and presumably in a professional/academic setting. This answer does not address the question as to how to do that and what the possible repercussions may be.
    – tonysdg
    Nov 4 '16 at 3:45
  • The question was: "Is such a paper worth pursuing, and if it is, how should I best go about minimizing that potential drawback?" I provided an answer which addressed the second half of the question. If the research itself is important enough to publish, then it should be published. But if the OP wants to avoid type-casting themselves then anonymously publishing it solves that. You can disagree, but I think my answer provided value. Nov 4 '16 at 16:03

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