November 2018

Volume 41, Issue 2

In Good Faith: Editing and Knowledge Production in Precarious Times

Editors’ Introduction: November 2018

When, four years ago, we became editors of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, taking on this job was not an obvious “smart” move (and certainly not a safe one). For many of our colleagues, editing a journal is a capstone moment in a career—for us, it has taken place in the earlier stages. When we began our editorship, we were both still pre‐tenure (Heath still is)—a point in one’s career when the accepted wisdom is to concentrate on one’s own productivity and minimize service commitments. We both, moreover, had significant duties in terms of undergraduate teaching, which we consider a crucial aspect of our professional lives. This meant, however, that time to devote to editing a journal—always at a premium—was particularly scarce in our case. Learning how to become an editor is time consuming for any scholar, even the most experienced. In our case, we both had recent books out, but by no means did we have the decades of publishing experience of many of our colleagues. Indeed, more than one close colleague and mentor advised against taking the position given the likelihood that it would steal time away from individual research at a crucial point in our careers.

And yet, we decided early on that this was too good an opportunity to pass up: to step into the shoes once filled by so many of our own intellectual heroes, and to edit what had long been one of our favorite journals. We were also excited about the possibility of contributing meaningfully to the field we care so much about, to an organization (APLA) that has been such an important home for both of us, and to do so from within teaching‐centered institutions where the role of editor would give us a unique opportunity to engage with the broader field. And so, one might say, we threw caution to the wind, committing ourselves to that essential yet grossly underrecognized form of scholarly productivity: facilitating the work of others.

These past few years, we have both grown significantly as editors and as scholars (the latter sometimes because, sometimes despite, our duties as editors). PoLAR has also grown along with its readership, attesting to the increasing significance of political and legal anthropology within our wider discipline. Our submissions level has increased, as has our selectivity; our impact factor has also increased and held steady. In the course of our editorship, we have transitioned not only toward an online platform (a move necessitated by the journal’s growth) but to a new core member of PoLAR’s editorial team, Stefania De Petris, whose experience in publishing and academic background in the social sciences have made her an invaluable collaborator from her position as managing editor. Under the stewardship of Kate Henne, PoLAR’s online presence continued to grow; and now Associate Editor Jennifer Curtis and APLA Communications Liaison Randi Irwin are continuing to expand our virtual efforts, building on the excellent work Jennifer has already done with the APLA website. Book reviews have been restructured and moved online, thanks to the work of Matthew Wolf‐Meyer. And the tireless labor of those in APLA leadership, particularly Madelaine Adelman, Catherine Besteman, Erik Harms, and Kate Sullivan, made everything we have been able to do at PoLAR possible. We are excited to see how the journal continues to grow and innovate as it moves into the capable hands of incoming editors in chief: Jessica (Rachel) Winegar, and Jessica (Rachel, yes!) Greenberg.

In finalizing this, our last issue, we are reflecting on what we have learned about academic publishing, the work of editorship in precarious times, and how our reflections might speak to our authors and readers. Editing PoLAR has entailed significant effort and notable challenges, and not everything went swimmingly all the time. Indeed, many of the ambitions we articulated in our application letters never came to fruition as our energies were devoted to other, more pressing needs. Early in our tenure we were forced to rebuild the management and funding structures for the journal which were no longer sustainable. We participated with the rest of the AAA journals in the renegotiation of the publishing contract, with significant time spent reflecting on the trade‐offs entailed in the different models of academic publishing currently in use. We rethought the role of the editorial board and recruited new members. We experimented with different approaches to symposia. We came up with creative ways to decrease the turn‐around time from acceptance to publication, including formatting changes and the publication of two supplemental issues. And we did all of this while working to make sure that the journal was publishing the highest‐quality scholarship possible.

Academic publishing entails always working in compromised conditions, with less time and fewer resources than are optimal. PoLAR runs primarily on voluntary labor (including by its editors), and always on a smaller budget than we would like. Given these structural limitations (as well as our own), we have often made decisions we felt good about; at times, we wish we had done things differently, or that different options had even been available. But we have sought throughout to bring good‐faith energy to the task along with a commitment to bring a fair and, we hope, positive, review experience to our authors as well as excellent scholarship to our readers.

Of late, there has emerged a discourse of mistrust and even suspicion around academic publishing and the peer review process in general. In the wake of recent events at HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, and discussions of academic precarity more broadly, the sacred cow of the “meritocracy” of academic success has been undercut—and quite deservedly, we would acknowledge. More and more, it has become clear to many that academic success is connected to structural privileges and frameworks of power that are themselves prone to abuse (whether intentional or unintentional) and which can perpetuate conservatism and exclusion as opposed to innovation and openness. Alternative and online venues for publishing, such as our colleagues at Allegra LabAnthrodendumSomatosphere, and others, have thankfully provided space for important interventions that do not go through the traditional process of peer review. These have allowed for debates and contributions that are timely (even urgent), often innovative, and even a bit controversial. (PoLAR itself utilized the journal’s and section’s web presence to provide timely responses to emergent political issues, such as the 2016 presidential election in the United States and constitutional “reforms” in Turkey). Such sites have also made room for some perspectives and voices that might undermine the dominant ones in the field of power that shape our own field. And yet, we want to caution against this growing mistrust of knowledge production in anthropology, and specifically, of traditional publishing and peer review. We say this not just as editors of a journal, but as academics who have faced our own struggles as part of a generation for whom the future of academic work has become increasingly uncertain.

A recent article by the Dutch cultural theorist Mieke Bal (2018) published in Media Theory is entitled “Let’s Abolish the Peer Review System”. The piece argues that peer review, owing to the assumed authority it holds, renders elements of hierarchy and power unquestionable in an increasingly neoliberal academy. A number of the objections she raises have to do with how peer review encourages a kind of turf policing, in which reviewers either support articles, scholars, or approaches they like, or “trash” approaches with which they do not see eye‐to‐eye. This, she suggests, is upheld by the small review networks of editors themselves. Moreover, she adds: because peer reviewing is such a thankless task she does not necessarily blame reviewers for taking such a wrongheaded approach, and she suggests that most reviews are rote and routine as a result. Ultimately, she suggests, peer review has become a conservative practice that reinforces certain approaches while marginalizing others and alienating many newer scholars; and in which editors themselves are made slaves to the whims of often bad‐faith reviewers in an overall broken system.

This is, of course, a broad‐strokes summary of her points. Moreover, we would be the first to agree that there is truth to some of these arguments—sometimes. But having now learned the peer review process inside and out, and made numerous serious editorial decisions based on reviews, we would argue that more often than not these problematic tendencies can be and often are ameliorated through the peer review process. Moreover, the tendencies that are so problematic—the production of poor or deeply biased peer reviews—can be dealt with by editorial decisions that entail careful reading, consultation with each other, and with editorial board members if need be.

First, we would agree with other editors that citizenship through the work of (good) peer reviewing is crucial to maintaining our field (Grinker and Besnier 2016). If you publish, you should review; if you hope to publish, you should review. This is not just a quid pro quo, but it is also a learning experience, especially for newer scholars who, through engaging in peer review, can learn better what makes scholarship more or less effective. Reviewers can and do refuse to review pieces for which they have a conflict of interest or for which they do not believe they can provide a disinterested review. Most of the time, the reviews we receive are thoughtful, carefully crafted, and rendered by people who take their work seriously. Most of the time, we are impressed with and thankful for the work that so many of our reviewers put into developing the articles that pass through our pipeline. Authors regularly thank the reviewers in their final articles, and even those whose work is not published (yet) in PoLAR often thank the reviewers anyway for how their comments have helped their thinking.

Moreover, editors are not powerless. We work all the time to broaden our networks of reviewers (after all this is in our interest! If we are always going to the same small pool of reviewers, we will “strike out”). We seek reviews not only from established scholars but also from recent PhDs and from those outside the immediate field in which the author is based. As a subfield journal, we actively solicit reviews not just from area or topical experts but also from people with convergent or related knowledge who can speak to the wider‐ranging relevance and interest of an article. When we run into challenges or problems, as does happen, we are not out of options. Editors choose, all the time, to balance an overly biased review with direct recommendations for authors and to grant more or less weight to a review. These are, of course, subjective decisions—as all decision‐making is. But as much socio‐legal scholarship has shown, it is precisely through the moments of finessing, or working through a problem, that larger issues may be addressed. Finally, PoLAR is well‐known as a journal with a particular commitment to “mentoring” early career scholars. We are thrilled when we receive articles from recent PhDs—and indeed, these are some of the strongest articles that we publish.

Rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater, then, we would argue instead that we can work to improve a system that is, of course, prone to certain problems but which is not broken; and moreover, that it is up to us as an academic community and culture to seek to do so. Niko Besnier and Pablo Morales have recently called for an ethic of hard work and generosity to guide the projects of writing, editing, and reviewing, as well as the need to imagine that others, also, bring such qualities to the table (Besnier and Morales 2018). Another way to phrase this might be simply to have good faith. They argue that such an ethic is a powerful stop‐gap against the encroachment of the neoliberal university—even though it does not, of course, always work. It is important to take these words with a dose of salt, and to remain critical and vigilant about the forms of power and even abuse that can be enacted through traditional venues of academic knowledge. But we would contend that such good faith is crucial, particularly when combined with a concrete attentiveness to practice.

Such a good faith approach, along with a powerful sense of collegiality, are what originally attracted us to APLA and to PoLAR. Such good faith investment of one’s time in the work of others is not just an act of professional responsibility or reciprocity but a conscious choice to engage in a particular politics of knowledge production. The knowledge produced takes time and requires collective effort. This work is often voluntary, is not always visible or celebrated, and it may not pay off individually in direct or obvious ways, yet it does make our field and our scholarly and intellectual communities better. Good faith is contingent upon both the hard work of the author and the generosity of others. If you are reading this then you, too, are participating in the life of this journal. It has been a privilege to participate in this process as editors of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review. We are excited to see where all of those who make this journal possible decide to take it.

Heath Cabot and William Garriott


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