By Marie Sandberg
This essay is part of the series PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation on Peer Review as Intellectual Accompaniment
As a long-term, now former, editor-in-chief of one of the top-level journals in my scholarly field, I have given the art of academic publishing much thought, time, and energy. This PoLAR Online “Emergent Conversation” on the ethical implications of peer reviewing is a welcome invitation to share my reflections.
Our focus tends to situate hard-working authors on the one hand and peer reviewers as the needle’s eyes on the other, in a binary relationship. Yet, as I will argue, there is a third figure within academic publishing we are likely to neglect: the journal editor. With the aim of unboxing and de-individualizing the process of academic publishing, I will thus focus on the often-overlooked role of journal editors—a neglect that is recognized even among editors themselves. In this brief intervention, I would like to present some thoughts on this role and what it entails with the hope that we can become more knowledgeable about how peer-reviewed, academic publishing is done in practice.
The Backstage of Academic Publishing
We are publishing peer-reviewed international articles, probably more than ever. A recent study in PLoS ONE found that journal articles per author increased as much as 64 percent between 2011 and 2019, while books per author decreased by as much as 54 percent (Savage and Olejniczak 2022). “Publish or perish” is the well-known imperative for tenured professors and temporary contracted lecturers alike. In the often mentioned “audit regime” (Strathern 2000) of academia there is an overemphasis of focusing on scholarly work only after it has reached publication, which I believe is connected to an accelerated culture of research productivity. When our scholarly work becomes part of global knowledge transfer, ready to be digested, a final, published article signals some sort of closure; this is it, work done, mission complete!
Yet, I think we must highlight the “backstage work” and the large ensemble of actors that are also part of our everyday life as publishing researchers.
Apparently, it is of growing concern that researchers are increasingly contacted by commercial, so-called “predatory journals,” who offer their assistance with publishing researchers’ work, yet then neglect peer review or any equivalent quality checks of the manuscripts submitted. “Beware,” I am kindly warned by my university administration, “especially if you are contacted by journals, you do not know.”
Recent counter initiatives like the “slow-professor” movement (Berg and Seeber 2016) or the “reclaim our university” campaign (Ingold 2016), have surfaced as important critiques of this carnivorous rush hour of academic publishing. However, I argue that we should not only beware of the wolf or slow down the pace of our work; we should also be wiser about the way we engage in, learn from, and appreciate the process of peer-reviewed publication.
A World Without Peer Review
For a moment, let’s imagine academic publishing without peer review. It would certainly make publishing less complicated, and it would probably diminish the number of horrific stories about “the reviewer from hell.” Facebook groups like “The second reviewer must be stopped!” offer hilarious memes and visuals on how it feels receiving poor or simply despicable reviews. This way of humoristic processing attests that feedback among peers, as democratic as it sounds, is in no way a straightforward enterprise. Yet somehow the figure of the journal editor seems to be absent from these groups and memes. Setting aside the world of fiction—movies or novels portraying the troubled relationships between some Woody Allen-like character and The Editor—journal editors simply don’t seem to have quite the same potential to function as urban legends.
Refereeing has since long been used as an informal mode of collegial feedback in academia, however it was not until the end of the twentieth century that peer review was turned into a systematic quality control mechanism with the aim of preventing plagiarism and misconduct (Baldwin 2018). A few years back when my then co-editor-in-chief, Monique Scheer, and I, decided to transition the journal Ethnologia Europaea – Journal of European Ethnology into gold open access publishing, we wanted to republish all back issues and articles from the last 50 years on our new publisher’s digital platform. In this process we were confronted with a very serious issue about a former professor and contributor to the journal, who had been charged with scientific misconduct. In 2013, a university commission initiated by the VU Amsterdam Free University concluded that throughout his whole research career, the then-retired professor of political anthropology, Mart Bax had invented field sites, source materials, informants, and research problems (for a detailed summary and a personal recollection of the Bax case, see Margry 2020). At the time of publication, Bax was an internationally renowned scholar, whose notion of religious regimes, allegedly developed on the basis of fieldwork in Ireland, the Netherlands, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, had gained considerable scholarly attention. He claimed to protect his informants by using pseudonyms and inventing geographical names for the sites included in his fieldwork, so it took a long while for the scientific community to realize that informants and field sites had simply been made up. The Bax affair led to an aftermath of serious self-reflection in the scholarly community, which I won’t describe in detail here (see Ethnologia Europaea 2020: 2). Due to the VU Commission’s conclusions, we decided to retract seven articles by this author, published in the journal between 1988-1992 (Sandberg & Scheer 2020).
The scientific misconduct of professor Bax was taking place in the late 1980s, well before the institutionalization of the peer review system. Yet rather than merely using this instance of fraud in defense of the peer review system, I think the case is a reminder about the collective responsibility we have, as peers, colleagues, fieldworkers, co-teachers, friends, to speak up if something does not add up. No system is bulletproof, and the peer review system is certainly not. Apart from peer reviewers, quality checks need to be distributed among several institutions and actors, like named persons or ombudsmen—and journal editors. Distributing the agency of academic publishing—from good colleagues, mentors, or supervisors to peer reviewers and journal editors—implies that academic publishing becomes more of a collective practice.
“Thinking-With,” Not Reacting Against
A journal editor is thus dedicated to all aspects of journal publishing—from pre-review care to post-review care. When publishing state of the art articles in leading scholarly journals of our fields, there is a good portion of editorial midwifing at stake, and we must put to rest for good the myth of the solemn genius author who manages to submit the perfect paper ready for publication. This has nothing to do with giving credits to editors; needless to say, the main author and potential co-authors should be rightfully listed as author(s) and as mainly responsible for their research.
Yet in the process of journal article publishing, the responsibility and role of journal editors is seldomly addressed, if at all. Editors should refrain from thinking themselves as gatekeepers, or even worse, as passive mediators just handing over the reviewers’ conclusions to the author of the manuscript submitted. As a former guest editor of another highly ranked international journal, I have personally experienced some rather rigid rules pursued by the journal in question about automatic editorial decisions based on how many “major revisions” the reviewers requested. If a manuscript received just one “major” out of the two “verdicts,” editors would automatically turn down the article. Yet I don’t find it very productive to think of reviewers’ comments as verdicts, at all.
We need to find new ways of thinking about the role(s) of journal editors. Rather than gatekeepers or passive transmitters, we should emphasize the role of journal editors in establishing new ethical standards for publishing and new modes of relationality in the process of creating excellent articles worth a read. Editing, together with the act of peer reviewing, should be considered an ethical practice of “thinking-with” not reacting against the act of writing.
Editing as Care-Work
This engagement requires new modes of caring for our research that goes beyond taking note of admonitions from our university administrations. Giving a heads-up about predatory journals is but one form of taking care. With inspiration from empirical philosopher Annemarie Mol’s notion of “care work” (2008), I think we can broaden the scope. Mol presents care work as an inclusive and open-ended process integral to daily life involving a range of heterogeneous actors and relations (see also Mol et al. 2010). Even though her idea is developed in the context of the ongoing neo-liberalization of the Dutch health-care system, Mol’s notion of care reminds us that publishing is not an act of the individual but is rather a socio-materially distributed achievement. This means that academic publishing should be acknowledged more as a collective practice involving several heterogeneous actors, who are cooperating in specific situational settings.
As part of this care work, it is thus the obligation of journal editors to guide and prepare reviewers well. This means that firstly, the reviewers should be instructed in a clear manner about what we mean by constructive criticism. Secondly, it should be made clear to them that they are expected not to question the competence or integrity of the researcher per se, but to co-think critically while supporting the author with improving the text. Thirdly, they should be reminded of their crucial role in checking the quality and reliability of the research insights presented.
However, the perhaps most crucial step in the editor’s care work, occurs after the double-blind reviews have come in. What comes next? One reviewer says one thing; the other says the complete opposite. This is when the editor’s role becomes very important. Editors must identify a thread in between the reviewers’ feedback, suturing between the pros and cons of the comments. The author is in dire need of support from the editor/s, who should be setting the direction. Editors’ comments are more than another review; they must present the author with a viewing of the peer review(s). In this sense the journal editor becomes the “third eye.” This work is a vital mode of caring because it can help the author steer away from negative emotional registers that can so easily be activated when the feedback is rough. With the caring support of the journal editor the searchlight can be directed back to the content and the core argument(s) of the text.
An Ethics of Relationality
As journal editor Lena Näre (2022) argues, the Open Science movement has created an (unintended) incentive for commercial publishers to make increased use of republications. This too should be a wake-up call for all journal editors in charge of academic publishing within the humanities and social sciences, an imperative to take their role as care takers more seriously. Editors not only function as gatekeepers for authors’ new publications but act as guardians of what poststructuralist philosopher Judith Butler (2004) calls an “ethics of relationality” (22). Although Butler is writing about a different context than academic publishing, her way of conceiving of this relationality is relevant for my point, because it implies a “responsiveness which precedes the ego, a kind of responsiveness that therefore is and is not my response” (2012, 136). An ethical relationality in academic publishing involves various modes of caring—from the safeguarding of quality check systems to the midwifing, suturing, and “third eye” roles editors perform throughout the editing process. If we all take part in this care work, from authors to reviewers to editors and publishers, we can jointly create more robust alternatives than becoming the prey of publishing galore.
Marie Sandberg is Associate Professor, PhD, in European Ethnology and the Director of the Centre for Advanced Migration Studies (AMIS) at the University of Copenhagen. From 2021 she serves as the President for the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF). Marie Sandberg was the joint editor-in-chief of Ethnologia Europaea – Journal of European Ethnology 2013–2020, with Regina Bendix (University of Göttingen) and later Monique Scheer (Tübingen University). She has published several peer-reviewed articles in high-ranked journals such as Journal of European Studies and Identities, and edited a range of special issues and volumes. She has held Visiting Scholar positions at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and Radboud University, The Netherlands, and she has been a Senior Fellow at University of Zürich. Marie Sandberg is vividly engaged in discussions within international as well as Nordic fields of migration and border studies covering a research expertise in European borders, civil society initiatives and migration practices. She has conducted ethnographic studies of the ways borders in/of everyday life are continuously negotiated, overcome, and rebuilt in interactions such as volunteer work in support of refugees coming to Europe during the 2015 “refugee crisis.”
 For 8 years, from 2013-2020, I had the pleasure of being editor-in-chief of the journal Ethnologia Europaea, first together with Regina F. Bendix and later with Monique Scheer. Ethnologia Europaea – Journal of European Ethnology is an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal with a focus on European cultures and societies, past and present. The journal was first published in 1967 and since then it has acquired position as the international flagship journal within the field of European Ethnology.
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