Academic authors need a bill of rights

I began to publish in scholarly journals in 1971. For almost 50 years, I thought I understood what journal editors did. My certainty, along with my confidence in professional roles and processes, has evaporated.

I described some of my recent unprofessional experiences in a Times HigherEducation article in June. Since then, I have had two more. The first began when a journal’s co-editors told me that the short argumentative essay I had submitted did not fit their journal but recommended that I forward it to their blog.

I did that, but more than a month later, they rejected it for a roster of contradictory reasons. I asked a series of clear questions three times over several weeks before they replied that the blog editors were (apparently unsupervised) graduate students, who were in the process of rotating. Rather than answering my questions, the editors offered to revise my essay themselves, for blog publication. Surprised, I accepted.

However, after two stated deadlines passed, they suddenly announced that “the unanimous feeling of the Advisory Board members who responded…is that the submitted piece is not appropriate for the journal [note: not the blog] and that it does not warrant the additional effort of revision [that they themselves offered]”.

To complete their breathtaking unprofessionalism, they added that although they would read any reply, they would “not respond in kind”. I requested that they respond, not “in kind” but professionally and honestly. I heard nothing.

The next experience began when I inquired about the suitability of submitting four short, thematically linked essays to a European humanities journal. The editor immediately expressed an interest but asked me to revise them into one essay. I did like that.

After more than six weeks, an assistant editor sent two “reviews” with a brief statement saying that “based on the review reports, the manuscript is not suitable for publication…Significant revisions or new data are required.” No further details.

Of the reviews, only one stands as a scholarly review. It offered constructive suggestions for stylistic and rhetorical improvements and recommended publication without qualifications. The second was scathing but gave no examples to document its wholesale condemnation. It criticized my treatment of a recent “book” that is actually an opinion essay, and it accused me of excessive “self-referencing” and being “self-congratulatory”.

Given the assistant editor’s request for resubmittal, I promptly revised it in accordance with the constructive advice. Based on my experience, I asked for an in-house editorial review to replace the unprofessional one. But the confirmation of receipt fallaciously stated that they had received two “negative reports”, and then the assistant editor went silent.

When I contacted the editor I was told the assistant was “on holiday” and that the editorial board had rejected my “submission” (actually, a revised manuscript). I requested a full explanation immediately. I am still waiting.

There was no Golden Age for academic periodicals. Time and support for editors were always limited; excellence in reviewing was never the norm. However, among the many editors at every variety of journals I have encountered, the greatest number have sought to influence positively and advance both scholarship and career development. It is only recently that I – and many colleagues I have spoken to – have begun to witness such unscholarly conduct.

Is it too much to declare that we need a Scholarly Authors’ Bill of Rights? For discussion, I propose the following – to be endorsed and enforced by disciplinary organisations, academic associations and university and publishers’ groups.

  1. Journals should provide clear information about their scope, mission and any specific or current interests.
  2. Journals should provide submission sites that are accessible and consistent – ​​and workarounds when they are non-functional.
  3. Journals should have established policies for the roles and qualifications of editorial and advisory board members. Editors must meet stated criteria for selection and undergo training and/or internship.
  4. All submissions must be promptly acknowledged, with an outline of steps to follow and reasonable time frames. Any out-of-the-ordinary delays that arise should be communicated openly.
  5. Editors and editorial boards must solicit the contributions only of reviewers who conduct themselves professionally and constructively and meet the minimum requirement of scholarly qualifications. Reviewers who breach standards may be entered on to a blacklist.
  6. Editors must discard unprofessional reviews and commission replacements – unless the editor or a member of the editorial board has the background to judge the submission personally.
  7. Editors should be open to collegial discussions with authors about reviews and publication decisions.
  8. Editors should respond professionally to legitimate questions and consider asking authors to revise and resubmit, rather than rejecting outright.
  9. Reviewers should never accept an invitation outside their areas of expertise.
  10. Reviewing must be accorded the status of professional service and receive appropriate acknowledgment in performance reviews.

Let the debate begin.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. His Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies is just published. He thanks Elizabeth Dillenburg for excellent comments and collegiality.

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