Academic Journals in the Crossfire

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There’s a Substack posting that is widely circulating across the Web that has not, to my surprise, received much attention in the higher ed press.  The piece is a rant, an invective- and sexist-laced tirade, polemical and elitist in tone, crude in language, and shocking in its resort to that old chestnut, denouncing one’s adversaries as Communists.

This profoundly offensive piece’s basic argument is apparent in its title, “The American Political Science Review Goes Woke.” It asserts that the journal, among the most prestigious in its field, now “exists solely to give woke Twitter influencers top publications so that SJWs [Social Justice Warriors] can pretend they have earned their credentials.”  The author also contends that in selecting an editorial team for the journal, the American Political Science Association rejected a more professionally visible application from the University of Texas at Austin in favor of a more “woke” proposal.

According to the application materials that are available on the internet, the proposal that the APSA accepted called for making the journal:

  • “more representative of the breadth of political science research and of the composition of the discipline and more relevant to a wider readership.”
  • “a catalyst for new topics of research, breaking ground in identifying substantive issues and dilemmas that the discipline has not yet recognized.”

What seems to have provoked the emotional outburst on Substack were several statements in the proposal:

  • “The editorial team will take affirmative action to provide full reviews by substantively-relevant scholars to all work submitted by women and people of colour and to all work that addresses race, gender, and sexuality in politics.”
  • “We will … use the desk-review phase as an opportunity to take affirmative action to address 

the patterns of descriptive and substantive under-representation in the APSR — particularly, though not only, of work by women and scholars of colour and scholarship addressing issues of race, gender, and sexuality. More specifically, we will adopt the policy recommended by the Women’s Caucus for Political Science (WCPS), which suggests that no manuscript that falls under those criteria and that is not rejected for remit should be desk rejected.”

  • “We will … try to increase the proportion of articles that address issues of race, gender, and sexuality. In particular, following the recommendation of the WCPS, we will ensure that at least one reviewer of manuscripts that address issues related to race, gender, sexuality, immigration, and other axes of marginalization and identity is a scholar who has published on that particular topic….”
  • “In terms of representation, we will collect data on and consider how the submission pool, author pool, reviewer pool, and citation pool represent the race, gender, sexuality, national origin, and institutional home diversity of the discipline.”
  • “… we will also follow the WCPS’s recommendation that editors of journals read and absorb the lessons of the growing body of research about race and gender biases in the editorial and publishing process, using that to develop a protocol for ourselves and for reviewers.”

I, for one, am unable to evaluate many the Substack polemic’s factual claims.  However, it is clear to that every member of the editorial team that the APSA accepted has experience editing journals, special issues, or books, that the team includes scholars with expertise in a wide range of methods (quantitative, ethnographic, and archival, among others), and that the editors have substantive knowledge of political science’s standard subfields (such as comparative politics, international relations, American political development, political theory, public policy, and state and local politics), and also areas of mounting interest, such as “immigration and migration, gender and sexuality politics, and racist and gender-based violence.”

For all its abusive and insulating language, the Substack piece does raise two questions that are worthy of discussion:  

  • How should scholarly journals in general, and humanities and social science journals in particular, respond to the growing calls for greater representational diversity among authors and reviewers and greater substantive diversity in terms of topical coverage?
  • How political or apolitical should these journals be? 

Here I should note that scholarly journals have always been political.  Those who accuse scholarly journals of politicizing their field need to recognize that the choices that editors make about which articles to publish don’t simply reflect an assessment of an essay’s depth of research, research design, theoretical and methodological rigor, writing clarity, thoroughness, accuracy, or the timeliness and significance of its findings.  

Editorial decisions are often colored by the perceived authority and expertise of an article’s author, and by a host of subjective factors, including the centrality of a particular topic to the journal’s field and the value attached to objectivity or to a particular methodology or conceptual and analytical framework.

In the past, it certainly true that many topics now recognized as central were dismissed as peripheral or insignificant.  It was also the case that editors, under the banners of objectivity and disinterested scholarship, did at times reject scholarship that was more personal, passionate, or presentist.  Those decisions, in other words, were indeed political.

So what should academic journals do?

1. In today’s academic environment of publishing over-abundance, journals eager to maximize readership and reader engagement should rethink their priorities.
It’s my subjective impression that many of the scholarly journals that I regularly read, in their eagerness to increase readership and reader engagement, are publishing more articles designed to provoke controversy and elicit tweets.

Nothing wrong with that.  But I wholly agree with those APSR editors who argue that leading journals should “be a catalyst for new topics of research, breaking ground in identifying 

substantive issues and dilemmas that the discipline has not yet recognized.”  To those ends, I urge editors to consider publishing more articles in cutting-edge fields and especially more pieces relevant to classroom instruction.

2. A scholarly journal’s diversity should take place across multiple dimensions.
In addition to seeking diversity in authorial representation and subject matter, there should also be methodological and theoretical diversity.  I understand that academic journals must serve a wide range of functions, including publishing the highly specific studies that are scholarship’s building blocks.  But I would urge editors to:

  • Include more literature reviews and scholarly retrospectives that can help readers keep up with subfields that are growing by leaps and bounds.
  • Feature more big picture essays that offer “new ideas or concepts, offering fresh perspectives on old questions, or asking new questions about established subjects.”

3. Journals should consider supplementing the 600-800 word reviews of individual books with somewhat longer essays that examine two or more volumes in a particular area of study.
As scholarly disciplines grow more and more fragmented, it is becoming harder and harder for individual scholars to keep up.  Somewhat longer review essays can situate new books in broader contexts and explicitly compare and contrast interpretations.

4. Evaluate scholarship on the basis of its excellence, not whether it is or isn’t political.
To damn scholarship as politicized is a not so thinly veiled way to dismiss it as biased, ideological, unprofessional, and wrongly thesis-driven.  But most academic research has explicit or implicit political implications and journals shouldn’t deny authors the opportunity to spell out those connections. 

5. Make the review process more transparent.
Spell out timelines for manuscript reviews.  Keep authors apprised of delays.  Regularly report to the journal’s board and its sponsoring organization about any trends or problems that the journal is experiencing.  Most important of all, provide authors with helpful advice:

  • A reasoned explanation of why a manuscript has been rejected.
  • The editor’s sense of the manuscript’s potential for publication elsewhere.
  • The specific revisions the journal requires. 

6. Consider ways to make the journal’s scholarship freely available.
Wouldn’t it be better if those who aren’t scholars drew upon vetted articles rather than whatever pops up on Google search?  It’s my understanding that many subscribers pay for a scholarly journal in order to receive the reviews.  The articles are a bonus.  If that is indeed the case, let’s make the articles more accessible.  Doesn’t information yearn to be free?

7. Encourage more interactions between authors and readers.
A letter to a journal’s editor typically appears six months or even longer after an article’s publication.  Many journals do not print responses at all.  Why not create online forums where articles can be discussed and debated?

Even in a book-based discipline like mine, history, scholarly journals, despite flagging circulation, continue to occupy a crucial space.  Not only do these journals’ articles and reviews help determine who does or doesn’t get tenure and promotion, the journals also signal which fields are most lively and provide status markers that determine which scholars achieve professional visibility.

In thinking about how academic journals might be strengthened, President Clinton phrase endorsing affirmative action came to mind: “Mend it. Don’t end it.”  Of course, no one’s talking about terminating scholarly journals.  But if these publications are to thrive, they do need to evolve.  

It does no one any good if our journals continue to devolve into what I fear they are becoming today: less contributors to scholarly discourse, experimentation, and innovation than repositories of scholarship that is too little read, valued largely as notches on academics c.v.s.  

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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