Saturday, March 15, 2008

An interesting conversation about publishing ...

... was fueled in small part by a recent toss-away Speech Act of mine, and can be read at Quod She. Thanks for starting it, Dr. V.

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EDIT 3/16
Here's what I wrote over there, corrected ever so slightly:

It's a great set of questions, Dr V, and I'm glad that my frivolous comment masquerading as a Speech Act helped spur something deeper.

Anything peer reviewed typically counts highly to both a college/university tenure committee and to an outside reviewer of a tenure case. Period. It doesn't usually matter at all whether it is a journal or a collection of essays so long as it has been declared kosher via this secretive process which only allows truth to emerge. [Though I have served on a university T&P Committee in which different disciplines sometimes attempted to impose their own ratings -- i.e., an analytical philosopher who decreed that refereed journal articles were the gold standard; he declared this for no good reason that I could discern other than that this is what people in his field say to each other, and so it seemed to him a universal verity]

Personally, I think this reliance upon the magic phrase "peer reviewed" is an excuse for evaluators NOT to use their own brains, to read something and judge it for themselves. Anyone who thinks about peer review for more than a few seconds will immediately realize what a fallible system it is, susceptible to abuse and to favoritism at every turn.

As to the Medievalist Trifecta [of JMEMS, Exemplaria, and Speculum]: what Karl doesn't know is that when you complete it as I've outlined, a secret committee of medievalists who watches over such things sends you a small bouquet of flowers, a medal, and a certificate suitable for framing.

AND...

One more thing: it was JMEMS's obsession with special topics that allowed me to place an essay there (in an issue on medieval race, just as I was working on the topic). Exemplaria worked because I proposed and assembled a cluster myself (on medieval noise) ... and Speculum accepted my piece because at the time I submitted there was a sympathetic editor there whom I suspected would send my essay to readers who would take it seriously, and not to some dessicated crank who would inveigh against use of theory, style, or whatever else was causing scholarly dyspepsia on that day. Thus, I believe, did the first mention of Deleuze and Guattari make its way into Speculum. Writing for that journal was really an exercise in adapting my methods to its love of Latin and its copious footnoting of obscure works in multiple languages. It was actually a lot of fun to do that essay, a little piece called "The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich."

On a related note, that same Speculum editor is the one who plucked my edited collection The Postcolonial Middle Ages out of the "Also Received" dustbin (where the books go that will not be reviewed in the journal; it's that list of doomed orphans at the back of each issue). He reviewed the volume himself, sympathetically. Peer review gone right? No, a further example of the fallible chain of human actors who have a profound influence upon work they may or may not take with appropriate seriousness. I could go on and on about the license to be crazy or mean or police-like that the anonymity of peer review can grant ... but I want to stress that my "Trifecta" essays saw light of day not because peer review declared them to be True, but because of strategy, opportunity, and realization of the network of human actors behind publishing. [Also in there, I would like to think they had something valuable and original as well. I don't want to make it seem that I'm saying you can write anything and publish it so long as you pitch it correctly ... two of the three of the essays I'm speaking of benefited immensely from the serious, helpful, and probing comments of the readers.]

And I add, now: for these reasons medieval studies owes a great debt to scholars like Bonnie Wheeler and Al Shoaf who have nurtured challenging and unconventional projects and who have gently guided to print writing that could easily sink should peer review go wrong.

11 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

This entire conversation kind of fills me with dread, partly because I am one of those crazy persons who never thinks about these things at all, by which I mean: I don't think about the relative prestige and tenure-worthiness or lack thereof attached to *any* venue of academic publication, although I do worry a lot about the dissemination of our ideas and scholarship [what comes to light, gets "born," and what does not], which is why I have always held journals such as "Anglo-Saxon England" and even "Speculum" to be highly suspect: there is way too much hidebound gate-keeping going on at both of those journals and I wouldn't mind seeing both of them blown up [with cartoon dynamite courtesy of Wile E. Coyote's Acme Company--in other words, I don't mean this literally].

Now, having said that, I know perfectly well that some of the best scholarship in medieval studies has been published in both of these journals--that goes without saying--but much has also been kicked to the curb and stomped on the head [and heart], even with malevolence, by the reviewers and editors of these two journals, and no, I've never submitted to either and never plan to. Everyone knows that what I am saying is true. "Anglo-Saxon England" is actually much worse than "Speculum"--it's a very exclusive club and you either carry a card issued by them or you don't. On a personal level, my own career goal is to publish in journals where medieval [and especially, Old English] studies rarely appear and my secret trifecta would probably be: "Critical Inquiry," "Representations," and "PMLA." In medieval studies, my goal would be to publish in "Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies" and "Expemplaria," but even with those I worry about the "long lines" of contributors, so to speak. I haven't attempted any of these yet, though, mainly because I've been so busy with editing and writing for volumes of collected essays on certain specialized topics [like Levinas and medieval studies and BABEL's humanisms project and JJC's new collection on "cultural diversity" in early medieval Britain and a collection John Hill is doing on aesthetics and Old English literature, etc.] that I literally don't have time to consider that right now, and perhaps I never will. And this is all okay, I think, because ultimately, I just want to be able to do exactly the kind of work I *want* to do [can't stop myself from doing] and I want to leave room to always be pulled in different directions with the final, written work ending up . . . where it ends up.

Of course, though, I worry [again] about dissemination [what comes "out," what remains "hidden" and even abused] and I also worry about volume. Ultimately, I'm for a certain interdisciplinary panglossia and and I'll even take quantity sometimes over quality. I want to see *more* medieval studies scholarship published in *more* venues [print, digital, and otherwise] and in collaboration with more partners outside of our more narrowly defined medieval studies "fields." We worry sometimes too much about how we're going to, let's say, "survive" professionally within medieval studies [where should I publish? what kind of articles or books? with whose approval? etc.] and we don't worry enough about whether or not our discipline has something to say that is meaningful both to other disciplines and to the more general "reading" and "thinking" public [and maybe we also don't worry enough about this question: does what I do *feel* good? am I happy? am I having fun?]. Of course, this is all very problematic if you are only going to confine [or maybe are *forced* to confine] your thinking to how to please your colleagues and university administrators [for tenure and promotion] or how to please your peers within your specialty [for "elevation" and "visibility" within that specialty]. So then, I would just say here that some of our powers needed to be directed, *now*, to creating new venues--especially electronic--for not only the publication and dissemination of our work, but more importantly, for the collaborative [and generously-contoured] encouragement, cultivation, and development of that work.

Which is why I am really glad that in his comments to Dr. Virago's original post, Karl reminded us to frame our comments in this discussion on "what's good for the field but especially what's good for other scholars (and readers) in general," and he also cited a piece by John Holbo [over at The Valve] in which Holbo asks us to consider new forms of [especially electronic] academic publishing as a generous and *free* and better *networked* "gift culture." Please please please read Holbo's post, which references other important posts & sites related to the "state" of academic publishing, here:

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/electra_press/

I can't say anything better than he says it there. I will simply only add that I think the days of "blind" and anonymous peer review need to end, and the sooner the better. We need a new culture for the development and I would even say for the *fostering* of scholarship that takes as one of its first premises that we are doing this *together* and not in opposition to one another and with the understanding that a multiplicity of perspectives on any historical "problem" or "question" will always be better than a more dogmatic approach that only allows a certain number of types of critical methodologies. Lest anyone misunderstand, I am not advocating here for any kind of "soft" approach in which "anything goes" [there are ethics to be considered, as well as the "rigor" of research and methodology], but rather for a more collective effort at helping each other produce the absolutely best work we are capable of producing by a concerted *attention* to and care for each other's thought and work, and frankly, success. We will need new journals, new presses, new online "sites," and better ways of communicating with each other. Let's get started. In some sense, we already have. Here. In this space. Which matters.

dtkline said...

An interesting thread. I'll have to read Holbo's post (and those linked). Some recent discussion at MLA and the Chronicle of Higher Education has also bemoaned the 'fetishism of the monograph' and has tried to refocus attention on the (scholarly) article, for two reasons (one stated, the other not, IMHO): (1) books are too expensive to publish anymore, so fewer scholars have access to that venue and (2) the sciences do most of their work in periodical format (for as the sciences go, so must we also, eh?). I'd love to see humanities journals include 'date submitted' / 'date revised' / 'date published' lines, if nothing else but data gathering purposes.

It's interesting to compare these lists of top journals, too. My goals were to place something at MP, PQ, JEGP, and either PMLA or Speculum--what I perceived as the old line, well established journals (all of which my own professors had published in). Speculum seems doable, as JJC outlined, but PMLA publishes a medieval article of any kind - what? - once every 5-7 years? I'll consider 3/5 a good lifetime batting average.

I dunno what to say to your 'gatekeeping' comments, Eileen, except to nod sagely and sadly. What other conclusion can one come to when one sees the same coterie of people being published in the same venues all the time?

As to the medievalist trifecta, what mantle should someone claim who has been *rejected* by all three: the 'trijecta'? In light of Eileen's comments, maybe 2/3 there too should be considered a victory! I'll accept the olive wreath via USPS, bulk rate, or maybe 'a lovely parting gift.'

Eileen - not to be obnoxious - would the gatekeepers (perhaps ironically) agree exactly with your sentiments in that clarion final paragraph?

Eileen Joy said...

Okay, Dan: your olive wreath is on its way, via Alaskan dog-sled. Wear it to teach, drink beer with friends, while asleep, or when dancing.

Maybe the so-called "gatekeepers" would agree with what I say in my final paragraph here, but I'm not entirely sure. Would they advocate a completely open and transparent process of review? Would they be willing to approach the scholarly Other [the person, but also the work] as something always-precious, ephemeral, in need of care? I'm not so sure.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I'm the anonymous commenter from Dr. V's thread (the same person on all comments to help with context).

I agree with the overall spirit of Eileen's comment (And thanks to you and Karl for the link to Holbo, good reading), not least of all the cartoon dynamite. FWIW, the unofficial offhand comment in academic circles in Scandinavia is 'everything here will be open access in five years', whether that happens or not is beyond me, but it shows a desire for greater accessibility and an interest in reaching a broader audience (the academic publishing traditions are a bit different here of course so there are different motivations and expectations, but that's a long exploration).

For me as a youngish not permanently employed junior type with a mixed handful(-ish) of recent or forthcoming things plus a few notes and reviews, the review process at journals (outside ASE) has been extremely helpful, and in fact fostering and co-operative. In almost every case, I feel that the final paper was 'better' in terms of clarity, restructuring ambiguities, adding a reference that I wasn't aware of, correcting an error, or various and sundry--in short, from the large picture to the tiny details--as a result of readers' comments; if only there were more! So I have found that part of the process invaluable.

Whether the reviews were truly 'blind', I've no way of knowing. From my end, there were anonymous. And perhaps the 'collaboration' aspect is not dependent on those two characteristics, but part of me does like anonymous reader comments; they allow me to focus on the comments themselves exclusively, obviating my inclination to google the commenter, thank her or him at a conference (or alternatively hide from him or her), or share a cup of coffee the next time we're in the same town. I know this sounds unfriendly, but impersonal fostering, I think, has its place [even if the cloak of anonymity allows some people to shed their humanity]. I share the uncertainity about gatekeepers opening the transparency, but I've also been encouraged by many anonymous individuals.

In addition to the admittedly more important and interesting question of engagement and visibility, I feel needled to add (and I apologize if this comes across as more defensive than it is) that for me, someone who is looking at as many years on the market as fingers on one hand, nagging thoughts about placing articles has a something to do with visibility in my field, but also lot to do with 'if I get this article here, will it get me to a permanent job so that I can stop borrowing money against my kids' future and maybe put something away for them'. In other words, academic survival for some people may well be a matter of being king of the mountain, but for me and others it's (perceived to be) about being able to afford to play on the hill (I know that everyone knows this, but I'm just advocating the perspective a bit).

As to,

[quote]...for a more collective effort at helping each other produce the absolutely best work we are capable of producing by a concerted *attention* to and care for each other's thought and work, and frankly, success. We will need new journals, new presses, new online "sites," and better ways of communicating with each other. Let's get started. In some sense, we already have. Here. In this space. Which matters.[/quote]

Alleluia.

Many thanks many times over to all and each of you (commenters, authors and hosts) for promulgating this space and others like it. It's not only interesting, but helpful, and ultimately a very generous act.

Eileen Joy said...

Anonymous: thanks so much for your comments here; they're much needed as reminders about certain things. For instance, yes, sometimes anonymous review--especially when it is done according to high ethical standards and with care for the anonymous writer--can benefit us more than if we knew who the reviewer was [and which might impinge negatively on our thought/writing processes, or just make us nervous in general], and I, of course, have been the recipient of both amazing anonymous reviewer comments that really helped me to strengthen my work while I have also been the recipient of incredibly cruel and bizarro anonymous reviewer comments. One of my favorites came from a reviewer for "Studies in Bibliography" who used a manual typewriter to write one sentence: "She shouldn't have bothered." [This article, thanks to very helpful comments from the *other* anonymous reviewer at the same journal, was later published in the "British Library Journal"]. But having said all that, I am still, at the end of the day, ultimately against blind and anonymous reviewing--I just don't think we need it, and most of the reasons we can come up with for defending its usefulness can easily be accomplished [I really believe] with more open and transparent reviewing processes. To help us get to that point, though, we have to somehow change the profession so that it is not run like an exclusive club or Hollywood star system and the like, and so it does not feel so "closed" and "competitive," and so that it is not always running on a scarcity of resources which tends to make all the bad things happen, which brings me to . . . .

your very useful reminder of how our thinking on all these matters cannot always be disentangled from our so-called "status" or "place" within the system. So, you agree with the overall "spirit" of my comments [fair enough] but also ask me to consider the dire economics that construct the lives of those who are trying to get *in*, as it were, with some security of a future, to this place we call the university [even more fair enough on your part]. But these reminders also make me feel even more passionately about how important it is that those of us who are *in* here and who, maybe, can change some things, need to get going on this. What is "new" is often suspect at first [like e-journals that are open access] and maybe doesn't have the status it needs to give someone a leg up, as it were, and maybe this is an awful time to be trying to get a foothold in a place that is crumbling a bit all around us [i.e. does medieval studies have a strong *economic* future in the American academy? And if it doesn't, what are we doing about it?]. It may be a fool's errand, or even a lark, or a suicide mission, but I can tell you that my career is devoted to institutional and disciplinary change of a very real nature in order to open paths to a more open humanities in which more persons and more ideas can be said to count *more* and where the well-being of scholars matters as much as the content of our intellectual work.

Dr. Virago said...

Eileen - Thanks so much for picking up the conversation with your usual inspiring passion.

I'm interested in your saying you want to see more scholarship in more venues. I want to see that too, and yet, at the same time, I feel the need to slow down myself, to turn my work from being the mechanized production line I feel it is now to something more organic and slow-growing. And I'd like to see the professional as a whole do that, too. That might actually give more room for the voices that have been shut out of the mainstream, so that we'd end up, paradoxically, with more scholarship and a wider diversity of it. And we'd all be saner for it.

Hey, a girl can dream, can't she?

Dr. Virago said...

And JJC - thanks for your comments here and at my blog, and for starting up the conversation here.

I can't believe The PoCo MA was in the "also received" pile. (They really don't like the essay collections there, do they? WTF?)

And yes, yay for Al and Bonnie, Exemplaria and The New Middle Ages. I probably wouldn't have my job and my career without them.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:07

Thanks, Eileen for the grist; I've been much milling. My 'I agree...but' was perhaps a bit slithery. Better and more accurate would have been: I'm completely in line with the desire for a way forward that includes transparency and humanity, and I'm compelled by the force and urgency of the arguments as well as the ethics and indeed the passion. I'm thinking through some of the details and how I can approach and integrate the issues into my own little sphere of activity (this was the 'but', not really an adversative, more an out-loud contemplation).

Perhaps, those of us in the not-'ins' should not be let off the hook so easily either. MKH, for example, has no guaranteed prebendary for the future (and nor did KS). Yet they found a ways to contribute and help shift dynamics (and still are). Others might feel more comfortable in other media and different modes, but the public acts of these two (as well as others elsewhere) are a fitting reminder that we can't wait for enfranchisement as a condition for effecting dignity. One mental hurdle for some of us is the (in)ability to transform the seemingly sage advice for caution, the stern reminders about conforming to the parameters of search or tenure committee desires, all the reasons 'why not to do' something into possibility. It's often easier, if not reflexive, to be governed by fear even when one knows one should be having fun (which, despite connotations to the contrary, is a very serious endeavour, of course). Spring and these fora help though!

Lawrence said...

Just a wee remark in defense of blind review, if done right, from a journal editor's (as well as submitter's) point of view. It's very hard both to fault places like Speculum, ASE etc for being clubby, and then also to want to do away with anonymity. Open review works fine if everyone is already in the same club, whether the "In the Middle" one or the Speculum one.

If peer review were made wholly transparent, the small fields especially (like the one that the journal I co-edit belongs) would find themselves simply unable to publish anything--or having to bug our friends to be willing to review all the time, who in turn would favor their friends' articles, which would end up putting us in the same bag with the meanies identified here. Alas and welaway!

Reviews of my own articles that TOTALLY MISSED my point how could they what the heck is going on here this is so unfair have been my lifeblood in lots of ways. Obviously we all want our friends to nurture us, but sometimes we need other things too. (Though no one needs a report that says "She shouldn't have bothered." I'll tell you who shouldn't have bothered: SB's editor! That's bad, man.)

On another point, blind can be great protection too: if, say, an undercooked essay by a junior person garners a very negative review there is much much less chance of someone's career being hurt as a result. And that situation is very common.

I've really enjoyed this conversation first thanks to Dr Virago and now here. Oh, in case anyone is wondering where Wilco is just now, they're in Sydney. At least they were last night. They ROCKED. LW

Anonymous said...

Same anon.

ASE is not blind or anonymous. I don't want to belabour the point lest it come across as bitter and vengeful 'name-calling' and an anonymous attempt to feed rumours. But it's an important point with respect to protection (or lack thereof) and potential career hazards for junior uncooked work. If the policy is not explicit (Speculum imo does a good job of outlining its process), I inquire before submitting. I assumed double-blind anon was standard (based on the graduate student/young academic guides I had read), but single-blind+editor overrule power is also not uncommon. Also, the principle of sending an article to a reviewer who does not have a direct interest in the argument (the not having a horse in the race rule) is less observed than I had envisioned based on my reading of academic career guides.

Whatever the merits of the present system or paradigm shift, I'm an advocate of knowing the lay of the land before setting off.

Now on to Karl's Wife of Bath post!

Eileen Joy said...

Lawrence and Anonymous:

these are all reasonable and logical comments and I understand how anonymous review can help, say, the junior untenured scholar who is still honing their craft, style, critical methodology, etc. Given how things *are* versus how, in my mind, they *should* be, this all makes sense. I guess though, at the same time, that I am trying to think my way through how a certain cultural conditions [i.e., academic cultural conditions] need to be changed such that blind review would not be necessary and maybe not even desired, for whatever reasons. Yes, as Lawrence, remarked, I, too, have received highly critical reviews of my work that have helped me improve my work [once the shock wore off--this is only a human reaction], but there is the question of tone, too. There are better and worse ways to tell an author that their point is not clear or that their methodology is fuzzy [or not working] or that their evidence is weak or that they should have read different books. There are sympathetic readings, in which you're not sure if the author is making their case convincingly enough and you help them see how to do that better [without telling them to change or ditch their argument because you've decided ahead of time it's "wrong"] and there are hostile readings in which a reviewer is protecting his or her own turf [and knocking the author out of it] or is simply unwilling to be convinced to believe that anything they don't already know could have any merit [in other words, there is bias in advance of any actual review of an author's work]. But a lot of what happens in bad reviewing is partly related to individual persons [and their bad ethics, lack of sympathy, narcissism, etc.] but is more related, I believe, to an academic culture that often fosters and rewards such behavior [and which also provokes a lot of undue anxiety on the part of junior and not-so-junior scholars who are trying to "have a career"]. There are all sorts of good things that can happen with anonymous reviewing, although the fact that we might want that in order to protect ourselves in certain ways ought to tell us something, oughtn't it? is the lesson something like: at bottom, most people suck, so it's best to be on your guard? Because, frankly, if a junior scholar needs to be protected from negativity coming her way because a senior scholar read some of her earlier not-so-polished work, then I guess we forgot we're teachers first. And this also brings me back to Lawrence's comments about "friends" publishing "friends"? But, what is a "friend" in this sense? Oughtn't we to enlarge our sense of who is a friend and how we can be better friends to each other in a discipline whose labors we *share*? It all goes back, too, to a certain never-to-be-shaken faith in a certain 19th-c. "German" and pseudo-scientific way of doing things in a field, somewhat ironically termed the "humanities."