Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Inside the Ivory Tower, Part II*: Stuffy Academics at the Gate

Er...doing the gatekeeping, that is.

Let me back up.

In academe, one must publish in journals in order to get anywhere in one's career (hell, even to stand still, one must publish). The way this works is that an author submits an article to a journal. If the editorial board (which is sometimes a grad student) sees fit, it is then passed along to reviewers. This is usually a double-blind process - the author doesn't know who the reviewers are, and the reviewers don't know who the author is. This is to prevent any special treatment (or the reverse) that might occur if the author and reviewer actually know each other in real life or have strong opinions about the other's work or some such thing.

Reviewers are chosen because they have some knowledge of a particular area. The idea is to get experts in the field, but as many people don't want to review articles (too busy, not interested, etc.), this is not always possible.

Now, reviewers have a lot of power in this process. If a reviewer thinks your article sucks, that can mean that your piece doesn't get published - whether or not it actually sucks. Reviewers also get to write whatever nasty thing they want to say - anonymously. I mean, think for a minute about how the relative anonymity of the internet works. Now, imagine that approach applied to a professional review on which people's careers rest. It's frightening, the kinds of things people will write when they know they can get away with it.

Anyway. You might think that it's not a big deal to get a paper rejected; after all, one can simply submit a paper elsewhere. This is true, and it's what most of us do - papers make the rounds, one journal at a time (submitting the same piece to more than one journal at a time is seen as a breach of ethics), and we wait for months to find out whether or not the journal is even interested (if it is, there might still be heavy revising in the future before the article will see publication, and there is still no guarantee).

But very often, the same reviewers review papers for several journals. This means that a small group of people have a lot of power to decide, not just what should appear in one journal, but what should appear in a number of journals. This is a problem because the reality is that what individuals research is highly - HIGHLY - controversial. Journal editorial boards and reviewers have political biases, like everyone else. Certain scholars' work - particularly those doing work on women, on sexual minorities, and on people of color - are more likely to be seen as less rigorous scholarship, particularly the ground-breaking work that challenges canonical knowledge or method. Or, conversely, these areas of inquiry may be seen as hot and exciting and valuable, but it is much easier for established (often white, often male) scholars to be published in these areas, even if they have no real expertise in these areas.

Now, the other day, I heard a talk that addressed the problem of lower publication rates of women and people of color. The speaker attributed this problem to "the pipeline" - the publication process itself. In other words, it is not a failure to do good work, but a failure to get good work accepted for publication, that is behind this lower publication rate.

The following day, I heard a panel offer suggestions for getting work published in academic journals. While some of the information was helpful - read the journal carefully and be sure your paper is structured the way the papers that have already been published are structured; keep sending the paper out and don't be daunted by rejection; be willing to take criticism and revise seriously; etc. - most of it assumed that the process was fair. The panelists even stated, flat out: Trust the process. The process will result in you having a stronger, published paper.

But there's a contradiction here because obviously, the process doesn't work. The process, in fact, is the problem. There is a structural problem with the whole system, and it's not going to go away. It is a problem, for example, when a journal rejects manuscripts in order to dishonestly drive up it's exclusive acceptance rate. It is a problem when a journal asks an author to revise and resubmit, but then does not send the revision to the original reviewers (which means it is less likely that the piece will be accepted). It is a problem when an idea, an approach, or a field of study are dismissed out of hand as unscholarly or irrelevant because of the personal bias of the editorial board or reviewers. And yet, all of these things happen regularly.

In frustration, some (not me, for what it's worth) have begun to simultaneously send the same articles to multiple journals. This is dangerous because it's not something one wants to get caught doing - it could indeed jeopardize future submissions. But it's also an understandable response to a system that, if not completely broken, is desperately in need of fixing.

(I haven't even mentioned that many people are expected to publish in the top journals in their field - publications elsewhere don't count. If each journal publishes 30 articles a year, and each journal receives between 130 and 300 submissions a do the math.)

So. A small percentage of people control the means to publish in the top journals, and thereby have inordinate control, not only over the careers of many academics, but also over what counts as knowledge in a given field. Am I overstating things? When these issues were raised in the panel, the journal editors again urged the audience to trust the process, mentioning their own, numerous publications. As they spoke, and as others joined in the conversation, the network of which they were a part became clearly visible: they were editors, they had reviewed for each others' journals, they had been published in each others' journals. They had connections to the names in the field.

Never once did they mention the existence of this network.

And when it was pointed out to them, they bristled, insisting that the network was, in actuality, really just the only available experts in the field, the only ones who could be counted on as gatekeepers. But, as a colleague of mine pointed out, once people believe they know who the experts are, they never look outside of their own networks to see who else is doing what and where. And so the same people control the production of knowledge, over and over again.

(It feels like a low blow to note that all three were white men, but then - they were. And this, too, is suspicious, not because white men can't be excellent editors, but because...well, you all know why.)

*I'm considering my earlier post on Women's Studies hires to be the Part I.


Anonymous said...

It's really starting to sound like academic careers are not that much fun.

SallySunshine said...

True Danielle. It can be downright exhausting. But, if you love being in the class room, it's all worth it.

Plains, ew... journal submissions. I'm sorry. At least as an adjunct accounting prof, I don't have to worry about that.