OK gang, here we go with my first official HamsterRant. This one is a tirade against my former profession (as many, no doubt, will be) and the topic is the process of getting an article published in an academic journal.
To familiarize the uninitiated: professional academics need to publish research articles in recognized professional journals to display their ongoing engagement with the discipline as well as their professional street cred for a variety of reasons, personal and professional, amongst which are getting raises and promotions. What usually happens is that one submits a manuscript (so called even though none are handwritten anymore) to the journal editor, who has a gander to make sure it's not the product of a deranged mind - one does have to be careful about that in this business - and then sends it off, with anything that might reveal the identity of the author carefully expunged, to usually two other academics, called referees, who recommend acceptance, acceptance with specific changes made, or rejection. Wherein lies my rant. I have gotten some real doozies from referees over the years. Here are just a few:
- An article in which I made the case for a multi-disciplinary approach to a given historical problem was criticized because the referee could not tell what discipline I professed.
- A referee who advised me to read a certain article the author of which happened to be a friend of mine. Thinking it odd that I had overlooked it, and not being able to find the article the referee noted, I emailed the friend who replied that she has never written any such piece.
- One referee report I received was once so insulting and demeaning that I brought it to the attention of a member of the editorial board (yet another friend) which resulted in a caveat being inserted into all referee requests for the referee to remain helpful and civil in their comments.
- A referee who said I needed to consult the work of a certain eminent academic on the subject; said eminent academic read over two drafts of the article before I sent it in.
- A referee directed me to a specific work by the same aforementioned eminent academic which, upon examination, said nothing about the topic of my article.
Now... some of this would appear to be the result of not reading carefully or closely, something we criticize our students for doing. These days, all academics are burdened with useless and annoying bureaucratic rubbish spewed forth by education "reformers" (and the gutless administrators who cave into them) which cut into their time, but if you don't have the time to do a good job as a referee, then decline the offer. More annoying is a growing trend I've seen for referees not to evaluate what's in front of them, but rather criticize a piece for not being the article they would have written on the subject. That's not what they're supposed to do. Weaknesses in argumentation, overlooked sources, etc. are what they're supposed to look for; they're not supposed to ignore the stated aim of the piece (unless that's just simply unsound, in which case they should reject the submission) and then criticize it for not taking the approach they would have taken or not emphasizing the sources they would have emphasized. Judging on merits does not involve imposing your own mindset on someone else's work. And there is no excuse for referring an author to work that doesn't exist!
Editors must also share in the blame here. The best and most professionally distinguished journal editors I've known took their referee reports as advisory; as the editor of the publication they saw it as incumbent upon themselves to exercise their own judgment and ignore referee reports they thought missed the mark (and discreetly and periphrastically to inform the author to do the same). Now, journal editors are under the same inane pressures as other professors in the current climate, but it doesn't take that much time to exercise judgement. Further, I firmly believe that when an editor gets conflicting reports from the two referees, they should not send out to a third reader for yet another bewildering opinion. They should determine for themselves what advice to recommend to the author and what not. A third report that simply offers a third differing opinion is useless.