The communal work we expect of one another

There must be a special hell for people who submit articles to journals, publish in them, but refuse to review for these journals.

Zeynep Arsel on Twitter, 18 Dec 2016

The above recent tweet by Zeynep Arsel, a colleague in Canada, resonated with me. Not only did the specific annoyance she articulated resonate with me. Her tweet further resonated with me in how it pointed to the precarious way in which communal work is allocated within academia. The tweet therefore points to the crucial aspect in academia of how some of the work is allocated and done for the benefit of collectives that are not defined by any single organisation or hierarchy. This is highly appealing in an idealist sense. Yet, as the tweet articulates, there might be instances where the allocation of tasks do not work as expected. The crux, moreover, is that there are no other sanctions than hoping that a special hell has been appropriately prepared to host those who appear to not play to maintain this precarious arrangement.

The tweet by Zeynep Arsel provides a great opportunity to reflect on the communal work we expect of one another in academia. Let me first think about the idea that we share a workload within collectives rather than only within organisations. Second, I would like think about annoyances that apparently can arise from this and what it might tell us about important aspects of the arrangement. I will stick to the topic of journal publishing in this post, but I think the theme of how we distribute and share communal work in academia is highly relevant other areas of academic practice as well. I recently wrote an editorial note in Valuation Studies that used the valuation practices entailed in scholarly journal publishing as an example of how different valuation practices may be interrelated to one another in intricate ways. Looking at the peer review process as work to be distributed within a collective provides another angle from which to examine scholarly publishing and academia more broadly.

It is, when you think of it, an interesting aspect of academia that we both recognise and accept the idea that we can hand one another work assignments without being in the same organisation or even knowing one another. When submitting a manuscript for peer review we expect editors to take on the tasks of assessing it, appointing reviewers and to furthermore ask them to take on the work of reading and assessing something they might not otherwise have chosen to read. Furthermore, this assignment of work in peer review would not be considered appropriate if it was done within a closed circuit of friends trading favours. In fact, such a closed setup for performing these tasks would raise suspicion that the review process indeed was inappropriately executed. Hence, we the distribution of the workload has in some sense to be done within a dispersed collective to really work. The absence of hierarchy or bilateral reciprocities are important for it to work. Yet, it also what makes it a weak arrangement if individuals do not play along.

I’ve heard musings from colleagues to the effect that one ought to contribute twice as many review assignments to the system as one submit manuscripts to it. The rationale here is that this would roughly make you participate in the review chore in proportion to how much you ask others to do it for your manuscripts. I think it is a reasonable rule of thumb, especially for more established scholars. The notion of “twice as many review assignments as submissions” is also nice as it makes clear how much work we are actually asking of one another for having a working academic system.  If we think of academia as dispersed work collectives, it is clear that it cannot operate without the sharing of the workload in some fashion.

On to the annoyances, annoyances related to how people participate (or not) in the communal work of journal publishing. What can be seen as irritating behaviour to the extent that we, in the spur of the moment, would like a special hell for certain people? Here are five suggestions in addition to the one caused by someone refusing to review for a journal despite publishing in it.

  • When you, as a reviewer, think that an editor has failed to pre-screen a manuscript before asking you to review it: “Why should I, as a reviewer, read this half-baked manuscript, if the editor clearly hasn’t bothered to give it a proper look?”
  • When you, as an author, you are expected to re-write your paper so that it becomes the paper the reviewer would have written: “Your job was to perform the task of assessing the manuscript, not to enroll and transform it so as to fit your own particular research agenda! The task to review is a service to the journal, editor, and author, not a service to your own ego!”
  • When you, again as an author, you are expected to align diverging reviewer comments without any guidance from the editor. “How should I be able to respond to all their contradictory concerns and simultaneously improve the manuscript? The editor needs to give me a break! – Or, at least, some indication of his or her own opinion on critical issues!”
  • When you, as an editor, are expected to be happy to consider a modestly re-edited version of a manuscript as a substantially revised version: “Are you seriously thinking that I should ask the reviewers to have a new look at this version? If you as an author is strapped for time, don’t you think the same is true for me and the reviewers?”
  • When you, as an author, editor or reviewer, you realise exactly how much a journal charges for a digital copy of an article you all have worked to develop for free: “Is there no limit to how much these guys think they can financially profit from our collegially performed work?”

Here we then already have the contours of more special hells. One special hell for editors failing to pre-screen manuscripts, maybe time-shared with editors not taking on the task of arbitrating between contradictory reviews. Another hell would be for reviewers hi-jacking the review assignments for their own agenda, and yet another one special hell would be for authors not responding to requests for substantive revisions of their manuscripts.

If anything, these annoyances point to precariousness with which this kind of work is distributed and performed within academia. The ease by which I could identify such annoyances suggest that there are not only expectations of everyone to participate and do our fair share. These annoyances suggest that there are expectations as to how we do go about doing the work so as to maintain these dispersed collectives.

These academic practices can easily be understood as expressions of a moral economy of journal peer review in academia (as per Lorraine Daston and, not the least, Robert Kohler). Yet, I’m not certain the most interesting question is what norms, if any, that holds it all together. Maybe, more interesting is to ask with what means we, as individuals and as collectives, can work to sustain and develop good practices. And no, I do not think measures that “incentivise” certain practices, like making a metric out of everyones review to submission ratio, would do the trick. Better then to let out steam when you see what you take as foul play. If we do not try to cultivate some beautiful ideals, who should?


Three reflections on being an editor

It is hard to capture what it means to be an editor in an academic endeavour beyond that it is hard and rewarding work. Yet experiences, like the volume on “value practices” I co-edited with Isabelle Dussauge and Francis Lee that came out last year (2015) and the work as one of the founding editors-in-chiefs of Valuation Studies, have generated some reflections I would like to share.

What is an editor? What does an editor do? Looking up the word editor in a dictionary, you find talk about the editor being someone who edits, or is in charge of “the running and contents” of, for instance, a periodical. It also includes the possibility to denote someone that is responsible for the content. In other words, according to the dictionary an editor is someone who edit, is in charge, and takes responsibility for the content. While succinct, they hardly give any real flesh to the editorial role. In short, it does not really describe the practice of being in charge of “the running and content.”

Drawing on my experiences of doing editorial work I sort my reflections using three questions: What is it like? Why do it? How to do it?

What is it like? I would favour a situational way of describing an editorial venture, highlighting that it includes the working with texts, people, ideas and an endless list of mundane and unpredictable aspects that comes with working with such matters. Editorial work is extremely interactive. It involves a large number of other parties (authors, reviewers, commissioning editors, copy-editors, co-editors, etc. etc. etc.). There are slices of solitary writing, reading and editing, but it more often involves interacting with others in meetings, through correspondence and so on. It further includes a fair share of plain administration and planning, the resolving of technical questions, etc. It appears as relational and multifaceted through and through.

Why do it? Being an editor has struck me as committing to a varied and unpredictable workload. (Yet, it is highly predictable that it means more work than predicted.) The broad contours of the end result is known. We all know, for instance, how a book broadly should look like. Yet, the shape of the end result is not known in any detail. The contingencies of the path to get there have in my experience furthermore been uncovered as part of the process and is actually a large part of the reward. What you with certainty sign up for is not a given end result, but rather an opportunity to the make and shape something together with others. This is a strong reason close to why it is a point of being an academic in the first place.

What can happen, then, is the creation of a process that generates new ideas. In such instances, being an editor is like taking part in a considerably extended brainstorm. For me, this is where the answer lies as to why do it: The reason to be an editor is for the moments where the process becomes generative for all involved parties.

How to do it? On the top of my incomplete list would be to not go about it alone. It is helpful to be able to divide certain editorial chores, but even more so to have one or a few others with which to share the caring for the overall development of the venture and the others involved. There are many instances where you will benefit from having arguments and drawing on the judgement of several people. It further means treating the effort as a form joint venture that develops a collective property.

Another helpful thing is to have good questions that can guide the work as well as to coordinate efforts as the project moves forward. It can be really generative to ask questions such as “What would a good book look like?” and “How can the whole and the parts be adapted to strengthen one another?” Involving contributors and editorial team in such working through such questions may not only improve the answers, but can also be part of realising them.

A third helpful thing is to cultivate your patience. Slowness is not necessarily a sign of failure. It might instead mean that serious work is being done that will show in the end result. Yet, you have at the same to be at it, to ensure progression and that the abundance of other commitments not just pulls everything apart.  All this means planning, communication, listening in, discussing, and so on. Over and over again.