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When the Exercise of a Master’s Course Gets Published in an Academic Journal

Interview with : Eileen Böhringer, Charlotte Boucher et Jan Rovny

Eileen Böhringer, a second-year Master’s student in political science (Major in Comparative Politics), and Charlotte Boucher, in the first year of her PhD at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics (CEE), have just published their first academic article, in the journal Electoral Studies. The article originated 18 months earlier in a course on quantitative methods taught at the School of Research by Jan Rovny, political science professor and researcher at the CEE. We talked to them together. 

In this article, you look at how much trust European citizens have in the justice system, depending on their political preferences. What do you show?

Eileen Böhringer: I’d like to start by stressing that public confidence in the justice system is crucial if court decisions are to be respected. We know that government and parliament are perceived politically: citizens who identify with a political party in power have more trust in those institutions than citizens who identify with an opposition party. You might think that it would be different for the justice system... 

Charlotte Boucher: Yes, because the judiciary is supposed to be impartial and independent of partisan concerns. We wanted to find out whether this kind of “winner-loser gap” existed for trust in the justice system in Europe. We show that this gap does exist, although it is smaller than for trust in government and parliament. “Winners” (supporters of governing parties) trust the justice system more than “losers” (supporters of opposition parties).   

Secondly, we distinguished between supporters of populist parties and those of so-called “mainstream” parties. You might think that all populists have less confidence in institutions (government, parliament and the judiciary), but we found that it’s not so simple: it’s mainly the populist “losers” who have a lower level of trust than the mainstream “losers”, while the level of trust among populist “winners” is no different from the mainstream “winners”. The same trends can be seen if we focus solely on the judiciary: the gap between “winners” and “losers” is greater for populists, which is explained by the fact that populist “losers” have a much lower level of trust than mainstream “losers”.

Jan Rovny: It’s a rather troubling conclusion, when you think about it. Populist “losers” lose more confidence in institutions, even independent, non-political ones like the judiciary. 

E.B.: It must be said that in practice, the level of independence of the judiciary varies from one country to another. By comparing the different countries in the study, we show that the more genuinely independent the justice system, the smaller the trust gap between “winners” and “losers”. For example, the gap is significant in Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland, where the judiciary has been politicised. The gap is narrowest in Scandinavian countries, where the judiciary is effectively independent. France and Germany lie somewhere between those two extremes. 

Can you tell us how this article originated during a course at the School of Research?

E.B.: We have to go back to the spring of 2022 when we were in the first year of our Master’s, taking Jan Rovny’s course “Quantitative Methods 2”. 

J.R.: The course is compulsory for almost all Master’s students in political science at Sciences Po’s School of Research. It teaches them how to use quantitative data to answer research questions: if I’m asking such-and-such a question and I have such-and-such type of data, what method should I choose to analyse the data and make it “talk”? In which cases might a particular method be useful? What are its limits, what problems might it cause? The course also aims to develop students’ coding skills using the programming language R, which is widely used in the social sciences but also elsewhere. Students learn how to prepare and process data using this tool: how to clean it, analyse it and display the results graphically. 

As a final assessment, I ask them to write an article, with a short literature review on the chosen subject and hypotheses to be tested, using the methods learnt throughout the year in Quantitative Methods 1 and 2. It may be on any subject, as long as the data exists, and ideally it may be the starting point for a Master’s thesis.

E.B.: Since we wanted to work together, we tried to find a compromise between our research interests. Charlotte wrote her dissertation on political trust, while at the time I was looking at constitutional courts. So the subject of trust in the justice system was a good compromise.  

C.B.: Trust topics lend themselves well to quantitative methods. What’s more, data on these subjects already exists - otherwise we would have had to work for years to produce it. We merged data from several sources, including the ”European Values Study” and the “Quality of Government”. 

How did you go from a course assignment to an article published in a peer-reviewed journal? Were there any challenges?

J.R.: When I saw Charlotte and Eileen’s paper, I immediately thought, “this is really interesting, with a bit of work it could become something publishable”. Even if the course is technical, they had chosen an important, interesting subject and dealt with it well from a technical point of view but also, and most importantly, with a real scientific contribution. Other studies had already shown political perceptions of the judiciary in Europe, but never with this approach based on the winner-loser gap. I keep saying in class that methodology is only important if it serves a good question, and in this case it did. My support then mainly consisted in giving Charlotte and Eileen advice on how to turn the paper into an article, the process of submitting it to a journal, and the various stages of review and revision. 

C.B.: Jan Rovny recommended that we try to publish our work as an article and suggested a number of journals. He gave us lots of suggestions on how to adapt it, as we had concentrated mainly on the methodological part. For example, he encouraged us to develop the literature review and the section on populism. Then, the challenges were no doubt those that all academics face: freeing up time (between our classes and dissertations) but on the other hand not spending too much time on it because there would always be something more to read or write; not losing the motivation to rework an article that had been written several months previously...

E.B.: I’d also say striking the right balance when responding to reviewers’ comments: taking them into account but without losing sight of what we wanted to say ourselves. Jan Rovny gave us guidance in that respect too. 

J.R.: It’s an important thing to learn, and requires a certain style of writing. My role was mainly to urge you to take the time to respond to all the points, and explain all your decisions so as to be convincing. 

C.B.: In the end, we were lucky because the first journal that we submitted our article to in March 2023, Electoral Studies, accepted it. And the review process was fairly swift, as the article was published in October of the same year.

J.R.: That’s pretty rare, so don’t get used to it! (laughs) Often an article is rejected two or three times before it gets picked up, and I speak from experience.  

But it’s also extremely rare for Master’s students to publish in such a high-calibre journal. There are colleagues who try and fail, it has to be said. So the fact that you did it in just a few months is impressive! 

Interview by Véronique Étienne (CEE).

Useful links:

Between impartiality and politicization: Confidence in the judiciary among political winners and losers, the article published by Eileen Börhinger and Charlotte Boucher in the journal Electoral Studies.

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