Given the centrality of journal publication in university performance these days, naively, one might have expected that sound publishing procedures had evolved and that they were generally recognised. Nothing could be further from the truth. The criteria by which submitted papers are assessed are generally opaque, reviewers are given no guidance on how to go about their task and the procedures are rarely spelled out.
As a result, submitting a paper to a journal has a black-box aspect – the paper goes off into a void. One has no idea as to when one might hear back from the journal. And when a response is forthcoming, the procedure can veer all over the place.
There is a paradox here. It is now standard practice for any research-oriented university to have an ethics committee to which research proposals are submitted. However, there is something of an ethical vacuum when it comes to the editing and reviewing of papers for journal publication.
Here are just some of the practices I have observed over several decades, shown especially to me by younger or newer researchers:
- You haven’t written War and Peace – reviewers identify issues that would require a book (or two) properly to address
- Let’s go in a new direction – reviewers are changed mid-stream, and identify quite different issues
- You haven’t written the paper that I would have written – issues being posed that are tangential to the paper submitted or even looking to a quite different paper
- You haven’t referred to my work (and I have my own impact factors to think about) – self-explanatory
- I am very clever – a review consisting of five pages of critical comment
- Not what we are used to – reviewers asking that diagrams be removed because they are not in keeping with a journal’s genre (and then publishing the weakened paper)
- Homage to our god(s) – a request that a certain scholar appear in the bibliography (the scholar being a totem in the journal’s subdiscipline)
- My decision is final – major revisions and minor revisions are made, and then the paper is rejected, without an opportunity to address any outstanding blemishes.
Journal editors have difficult tasks these days; their journals are often deluged with paper submissions, and it is often difficult to find reviewers. Furthermore, academic life is tough now, and in submitting papers to journals, academics need a degree of personal resilience to withstand the necessary rigours of publication.
All this is true. It is, however, incumbent on journal editors and their boards to ensure that the review process is conducted with integrity.
There are several issues here. The system is idiosyncratic and full of uncertainty.
It also contains undue risk. In many fields, there is a limited number of academics at work and their positions and writing styles can be identified. Authors place themselves at some personal risk, not least when there is a clash of approaches.
Third, the system is wasteful of time and effort, especially that of younger or newer academics, who may have large teaching commitments.
The system imposes undue emotional burdens. With its not-infrequent destructive reviews, the system exerts unnecessary stress, especially on newer researchers struggling to be published.
The system lacks a proper ethical base with a collective sense of standards, in which there is due regard for the integrity of the system and for fair treatment of authors.
How should we proceed? Here are six suggestions: First, could we not move towards an ethic of “do no harm”? For instance, reviewers could be reminded that they should offer constructive comments and convey a positive tone, whenever possible.
Second, while the principle of anonymity of reviewers is strong, so too is that of transparency. I suggest that there should be an opt-out policy. A reviewer’s name would appear unless she or he wishes it to be withheld.
Third, editors should provide reviewers with clear guidance on the matters to which reviewers should attend. Fourth, editorial boards should keep these matters under continual review, and each should have a definite policy on, and a set of protocols, regulating its own processes.
Fifth, editors might adopt the practice – which I have come across – in which authors are invited to comment on the review process that they have just experienced by responding to a questionnaire.
And finally, the large publishers of journals might collaborate in evolving a collective set of standards to which their own journals at least would be signed up.
These steps will not remove the excesses of academic preciousness, editorial authoritarianism and procedural ambiguity, but they may help to mitigate the present haphazard situation.
Ronald Barnett is emeritus professor of higher education at UCL Institute of Education. His latest book is The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia.