Academic journals in the crossfire

There is a Sub-stack publication which is circulating widely on the web and which, to my surprise, has not received much attention in the higher education press. The play is a rant, a tirade mixed with invective and sexism, with a polemical and elitist tone, with coarse and shocking language in its recourse to this old chestnut – to denounce its opponents as communists.

The core argument of this deeply offensive article is evident in its title, “The American Political Science Review Goes Woke.” He says the magazine, among the most prestigious in its field, “now exists solely to give woke Twitter influencers the best posts so that SJWs [social justice warriors] can claim that they have earned their credentials. The author also argues 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 application materials which are available on the Internet, the proposal accepted by APSA was to make the review:

  • “More representative of the breadth of political science research and the makeup of the discipline and more relevant to a wider readership.”
  • “A catalyst for new research topics, paving the way for the identification of fundamental problems and dilemmas that the discipline has not yet recognized.”

What seems to have caused the emotional outburst on Substack are several statements in the proposal:

  • “The editorial team will take positive steps to provide comprehensive reviews by substantively relevant scholars to all work submitted by women and people of color and to all work that discusses race, gender and gender. sexuality in politics.
  • “We will…use the desk review phase as an opportunity to take positive steps to address patterns of descriptive and substantial under-representation in the APSR – particularly, but not only, of women’s work and scholars of color and scholarship dealing with issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Specifically, we will adopt the policy recommended by the Women’s Caucus for Political Science (WCPS), which suggests that no manuscript that meets these criteria and that is not rejected for dismissal should be rejected.
  • “We will… try to increase the proportion of articles that deal with issues of race, gender and sexuality. In particular, as recommended by WCPS, we will ensure that at least one reviewer of manuscripts dealing with issues related to race, gender, sexuality, immigration and other axes of marginalization and Identity is an academic who has published on that particular topic. ”
  • “In terms of representation, we will be collecting data and looking at how the submission pool, author pool, review pool, and quote pool represent race, gender, sexuality, national origin, and diversity. institution of the discipline.”
  • “We will also follow the WCPS recommendation that journal editors read and absorb the lessons of the growing body of research on racial and gender bias into the editorial and publication process, using this to develop a protocol for ourselves. and for examiners.”

For my part, I am unable to assess many factual assertions of the Substack controversy. However, it is clear that each member of the editorial team that APSA has accepted has experience in editing journals, special issues or books; that the team includes academics with expertise in a wide range of methods (quantitative, ethnographic, and archival, among others); and that the editors have in-depth knowledge of the standard subfields of political science (such as comparative politics, international relations, American political development, political theory, public policy, and state and local politics) as well as areas of growing interest, such as “immigration and migration, gender and sexuality policies and racist and gender-based violence.

For all its abusive and isolating language, the Substack article raises two issues worth discussing:

  • How should scholarly journals in general, and humanities and social science journals in particular, respond to the growing calls for greater diversity of representation among authors and reviewers and greater diversity of content in terms of coverage? thematic ?
  • To what extent should these journals be political or apolitical?

I must emphasize here that scholarly journals have always been political. Those who accuse scholarly journals of politicizing their field must recognize that the choices editors make about which articles to publish do not simply reflect an assessment of an essay’s research depth, research design, theoretical and methodological rigor, clarity of writing, thoroughness, accuracy, or 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 in the journal’s field and the value attached to objectivity or to a particular methodology or to a conceptual and analytical framework.

In the past, it is 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, sometimes rejected more personal, passionate, or presentist scholarship. In other words, these decisions were indeed political.

So what should academic journals do?

1. In today’s academic environment of publication glut, journals eager to maximize readership and reader engagement should rethink their priorities.

My subjective impression is that many of the scholarly journals I regularly read, in their eagerness to increase readership and reader engagement, publish more articles designed to provoke controversy and spark tweets.

No problem with that. But I completely agree with those APSR publishers who argue that leading journals should “be a catalyst for new research topics, be innovative in identifying core issues and dilemmas that the discipline has not yet recognized”. To these ends, I urge publishers to consider publishing more articles in cutting-edge areas and especially more pieces relevant to classroom instruction.

2. The diversity of a scholarly journal must take on multiple dimensions.

In addition to seeking diversity in the representation of authors and subjects, there should also be methodological and theoretical diversity. I understand that academic journals must perform a wide range of functions, including the publication of very specific studies that are the building blocks of scholarship. But I urge publishers to:

  • Include more literature reviews and scholarly retrospectives that can help readers keep up with subfields that are growing by leaps and bounds.
  • Present more general essays that offer “new ideas or concepts, offering new perspectives on old questions or posing new questions on established topics.”

3. Journals should consider supplementing 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 become increasingly fragmented, it becomes increasingly difficult for individual scholars to keep pace. Slightly longer review essays can situate new books in larger contexts and explicitly compare and contrast interpretations.

4. Evaluate scholarship on the basis of its excellence, not on whether or not it is political.

To say that scholarship is politicized is a less veiled way of dismissing it as biased, ideological, unprofessional, and falsely based on theses. But most academic research has explicit or implicit policy implications, and journals should not prevent authors from making those connections clear.

5. Make the review process more transparent.

Specify timelines for manuscript reviews. Keep authors informed of delays. Regularly update the journal’s board and its sponsoring organization on any trends or issues the journal encounters. Most important of all, provide writers with helpful tips:

  • A reasoned explanation of why a manuscript was rejected.
  • The publisher’s feelings about the manuscript’s potential for publication elsewhere.
  • The specific revisions required by the journal.

6. Consider ways to make the journal scholarship available free of charge.

Wouldn’t it be better for non-academics to rely on vetted articles rather than anything that appears on Google search? I understand that many subscribers pay for a scholarly journal in order to receive the reviews. Items are a bonus. If so, let’s make the articles more accessible. Doesn’t information aspire to be free?

7. Encourage more interactions between authors and readers.

A letter to the editor of a journal usually appears six months or even more after the publication of an article. Many journals do not print responses at all. Why not create online forums where articles can be discussed and debated?

Even in a literary discipline like mine, history, scholarly journals, despite their low circulation, continue to occupy a crucial place. Not only do the articles and reviews of these journals help determine who does or does not get tenure and promotion, but the journals also flag which fields are most active and provide status markers that determine which researchers get professional exposure.

As I pondered how academic journals could be strengthened, President Clinton’s phrase endorsing affirmative action came to mind: “Fix it. Don’t end it. Of course, no one is talking about abolishing scholarly journals. But if these publications are to thrive, they must evolve.

There is no point in our journals continuing to morph into what I fear they are becoming today: fewer contributors to scholarly discourse, experimentation and innovation than too few repositories of scholarship read, valued largely as notches on academic resumes.

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