Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Rejection as a Condition of Employment (part 2)

Writing up our research is arguably that part of the process that makes our research count. Without being able to share our outcomes it is as though we didn't do anything. Of course that isn't completely true. I have spent many days in archives reading over unpublished fieldnotes of earlier anthropologists who only published a fraction of the material they recorded.  However, our contemporary standards of academic employment compel us to publish: first as students in order to be offered a job, then as faculty in order to keep our job and be promoted.

Whereas grant criteria tend to be clear, transparent, and consistent the criteria for having one's article or book accepted for publication is far more variable.  Journals that have pretensions to being top tier often have a high rejection rate. But pretension is not sufficient to explain high rejection or failure to publish rates.  Longer, more established general area journals tend to attract more submissions, which creates the opportunity and necessity to accept fewer papers. Most academic journal editors are volunteers (though the benefit, it is said, is paid out through career growth and advancement in one's home university - that's a debatable point). As volunteers they will have variable amounts of time they can or desire to expend on reading and reviewing work and mentoring authors who might need some closer direction.  Some journals are run as fiefdoms while others act as collectives and then some are publishing arms of academic societies or commercial publishers.  All of these factors (and many more) contribute to a high degree of variability in journal selection criteria and their rejection rates.

A lot of the other items on how to navigate rejection and/or revise & resubmit letters focus on feeling better and self-validation and then get back to work. Rejected authors are told to make reading the rejection letter profitable. Then there's the take a deep breath and then go back to work approach.  There are also instructions to pay attention to best fit - did you send the paper to the right journal in the first place? One can also find very nice discussions of a kind of cascade-style submission process: if first choice says no send to second choice and so on.  All of these approaches normalize failure as simply the first step toward success.

This piece is a bit different.  I don't fundamentally disagree with colleagues who talk about how much it hurts to get rejected (it does) or that one should just keep trying and eventually someone will appreciate your work (someone out there most likely will).  I think this kind of advice is generally helpful.  I often advise my graduate students to accept every suggested revision to their theses or dissertations that the committee offers (unless it fundamentally disrupts their voice or core principles).  In my own practice I typically take every revision suggested by an editor and the reviewers they selected and incorporate them: not always, but about 99% of the time.

In this post what I'm intersted in is (1) parsing out the different genres of rejection/revise&resubmit/minor revisions that one might experience, and (2)  understanding when an author needs to invoke a principled 'no' and reject the editors suggestions cart blanche.

The easiest rejection letter to receive is the one that straight out says we will not be publishing your paper.  They might say, as one editor did to me, that after reflection (and reviewing) the paper doesn't really fit our format.
Although the reviewers and I found the content of the paper thought-provoking, I am unable to accept it for publication in [this journal]. This is a definitive rejection, without the possibility of revision and resubmission. Because [this journal] is a selective journal, we can only accept a small proportion of manuscripts that are submitted. We must turn down many submissions such as yours that have considerable merit and may well be publishable elsewhere.
My principal reason for turning down this paper is unrelated to its content, After reading the paper, I have concluded that it is not appropriate for the “research article” section of [this journal] and perhaps should not have been sent out for review. With rare exceptions, research articles in [this journal] examine a delimited empirical case in the context of relevant theory and comparable situations. Your essay, though based, on some ethnographic work (as well as “insider” knowledge) is primarily a thoughtful discussion of some important general anthropological questions. Although this is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, your essay does not fit any of the sections of the current version of [this journal] and would best be placed in another journal.
(Editor. 2012)
The editor dealt out the definitive rejection in three solid pages plus the four separate reviews (which ranged from one that was exceedingly negative and detailed to one that was highly positive but short on content). That paper did eventually see the light of day and was published in 2013 (Standing on the Shore with Sabaan).

Most outright rejection letters are not quite so detailed as above. I think the editor wanted to show me the respect of a detailed reply.  I was anticipating the sort of response I got from the reviewers. Yet I still found the editor's excruciating explanation of why the content was not up to par (even though that was not the reason cited by the editor to reject the paper) a bit hard to stomach. It was a technically thorough and unimpeachable mini essay on all the flaws of my paper that left little doubt that this paper deserved a quiet burial in an unmarked grave.  I suspect that had I been a graduate student or just starting a job, I may have come to the conclusion that an academic career was not for me.

I find that there are two basic kinds of rejection letters. The first (as discussed above) are direct and unambiguous - "we're not accepting your paper." The second are a variant of the revise and resubmit letter. In most cases a revise and resubmit letter is straight forward. Completing the required revisions might take some time, but the outcome will be positive if one can actually make the revisions. The other kind asks for revisions but they are the kind that makes completing the revisions to the satisfaction of the editor almost impossible.

Earlier on in my academic career I received a long revise and resubmit letter from a the editor of Studies in Political Economy (SPE).  I was a graduate student at York University at the time and my paper detailed aspects of the Prince Rupert Fishermen's Co-op. It involved a class analysis of the Co-op and the fishermen who belonged to it.  The editor's letter was direct and supportive. Included with the  letter were three named reviewer's reports. Two of them (by Patricia Marchak and Barbara Neis) provided specific instructions and suggestions for improvements and revisions.  Neither of which called for reconceptualizing the paper or adding new research. They accepted my approach (while pointing out areas they disagree with my analysis) without expecting me to mirror their own approaches. The third review by Wallace Clement was a single paragraph stating the paper wasn't publishable in SPE. He pointed to a misquote of his work. He also suggested the paper might be more appropriate for a journal like BC Studies.  I doubled checked the misquote and found that I had correctly attributed the quote to him, but had listed the wrong page number. My graduate advisor (Margaret Critchlow Rodman advised that I send him a letter, apologize for incorrectly citing his work, and express my thanks for his engagement.  I did all that as well as following the suggestions from Marchak and Neis and revised my paper.  The paper was then sent back and ultimately was published in Studies in Political Economy #38, 1992.

These established scholars demonstrated an ethic of care that provided a neophyte scholar with the space and capacity to learn from their review. They took the work seriously enough to go beyond merely saying the paper was full of holes. Instead they provided detailed and doable suggestions that built on the strengths of the paper (rather than identifying all of the paper's weaknesses).  The reviews by Marchak and Neis stand out in my mind after nearly 30 years of academic publishing - few reviews since have been as detailed or framed so constructively.  I strive to meet their standard of intellectual engagement in reviews I am asked to prepare.

While the SPE revise and resubmit letter was a sincere offer, there are times where the revise and resubmit is akin to a rejection letter. This kind of revise and resubmit is very much a "this is so flawed we won't publish it and the likelihood of ever publishing it is low, but do feel free to try to revise it, if you really want to" kind of response.  Everyone gets one or two of these over their careers. Sometimes the editors are very sincere in their detailed and voluminous effort to demonstrate how inadequate our paper is and how, with a modicum of effort, we might be able to nudge it into the acceptable category. Other times it's as though they haven't the gumption to just say "tough luck, we reject the paper."

As an author and recipient of these letters we need to be able to figure out if it is really worth our time to make revisions or to move on to a different journal.  That's a a hard call to make.

I appreciate the honesty of an editor who once advised me that though I was invited to revise and resubmit their decision was essentially a rejection.  They invited me to consider revising and resubmitting, but they also made it very clear that the reviewers comments would have to be "thoroughly addressed" (Editor-b 2012).  However, the reviewers comments and suggestions were mutually contradictory and the editor provided no clear direction as to which of the reviewers' comments they would prioritize.  Furthermore two of the four reviewers took issue with my core argument (that anthropologists should stop using Indigenous communities as their source of data and laboratories to test external theories on). To address the reviews in full would have required a fundamental change to the paper that involved me backtracking on a core principle of Indigenous research.  This rendered revisions essentially impossible.

The paper in question had already been reviewed by the same journal with the same decision: rejected, but you can revise and resubmit. Two of the reviewers saw both versions of the paper - one approved the revision, the other didn't. Consistent through the review process with all but the journal that ultimately published the paper was an unease with my Indigenous critique of anthropology.  Some might ask why send a paper that is likely to provoke to a series of settler controlled journals in the first place. After all, they have a vested interest in the continued extraction of data from Indigenous peoples.  Fair question.

I thought the discussion was an important one to held within the covers of a mainline anthropology journal. Clearly the detailed (and lengthy) critical reviews of the paper (about 15 in total from three differnt journals) demonstrated that fellow anthropologists had an awful lot to say on the subject of decolonizing their practices. But their engagement stopped short of thinking it should be published in an anthropology journal.  The debate remained embargoed until I was able to secure publication of Standing on the Shore with Sabaan in  Collaborative Anthropologies (2013).

Most of the papers that I have published have involved revisions, sometimes genuinely minor - other times fairly significant.  Most of the papers that have been rejected by one journal have ended up published in another venue.  Working in the Woods (2001) was soundly rejected by BC Studies before being published by American Indian Quarterly (BC Studies also had took a pass on Standing on the Shore with Sabaan).  My piece on Pine Mushroom harvesting in BC was rejected by the Journal of Anthropological Research before it became a chapter in Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Natural Resource Management (Nebraska 2006). And so it goes - what is rejected one place can indeed end up in print somewhere else.

Standing on the Shore with Sabaan (as discussed above) caused me to reflect upon the ways in which our peer review system works and the discretionary control wielded by editors.  Three different journals either outright rejected the paper or required revisions that would have fundamentally dismantled the core argument of the paper. The fourth journal I offered it to published it as a reviewed commentary.

My take away lesson is that for writing that fits within the general framework of a discipline one need merely meet basic standards (one should strive for more of course). Writing that disrupts, upsets, or provokes has to be written at significantly higher standard; but even that doesn't guarantee publication. Writing styles are not set in stone - they are structured by trends and fashion. Cast your eyes back over the decades of academic publishing and you can see the changes in style. My point is that being part of a change in style or approach can mean one's voice remains silenced. Consequently most writers stick to the middle ground because of it.   In this sense rejection can be a kind of validation - we pushed the right button!

As a writer one needs to think very carefully about our audience, our message, and the venue through which we wish to publish. There will be compromises and the question becomes what compromise is one willing to accept. Humility is also part of the picture.  We need to consider the possibility that our message is wrong, flawed, or presented in a manner that our intended audience won't pay attention to it. It is far easier to believe that we are right instead of listening to one's critics. Sometimes though, even after consideration of our critics, one realizes that there is a fundamental principle at play. In those cases an author should have the courage of their convictions and continue to press on.  It's no guarantee that one's paper will get published, but some principles are not to be violated.

Sometimes getting published involves moving outside the mainstream academic venues. This will have a cost if a writer is intent on being an academic. Sometimes we can manage to meld different voices and genres.  Expressive forms today include digital video, podcasting, blogs (like this one), and social media.  Some of us who have managed to remain afloat in the academy are also trying to change the measures that are used to evaluate and assess voices that might otherwise be silenced. So while rejection is all part of the game, it doesn't need to be a game ender.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Rejection as a Condition of Employment (part 1)

Rejections letters are part of the academic condition. We don't normally hear about them in our formal channels. It's only in the informal complaints overheard in hallways, homes, and mailrooms. But rejection is part of the landscape of academic work (from our volunteer labour as students through to forms of paid employment).  Success -otherwise  described as excellence- displaces any discussion of failure or rejection unless it is framed in a 'pick yourself up, and move forward' parable.  Failure is a ubiquitous reality of faculty working conditions. We aren't really provided guidance on how to deal with rejection as so much of the talk in the academy focusses on success.

It is important to understand what failure means in our workplace. I want to be clear. I am not talking about cataclysmic failures that get people fired (criminal behaviours, or abject dereliction of duty). I am talking about the more mundane failures that structure everyday aspects of our work. From that I want to suggest some ways to deal with these everyday failures and think about ways to recast them.

I regularly get rejection letters.  Hmm. I don't like how that sounds. Let me rephrase. As part of my professional life I receive notifications from granting agencies, journals and publishers. Some of these letter writers will tell me that my work doesn't fit within their objectives or meet their standards.  Granting agencies typically either fund or or don't fund and the responses tend to be more circumspect than the journal editors. Also, the criteria for granting agencies tend to be more transparent and explicit.  Some of the letters from journals might tell me that, while they like the work and reviews were okay, some minor revisions will be required. It is the minor revisions (with long lists of changes) or the revise and resubmit letters that authors often find the most disheartening.

Grants and fellowships are the primary fuel of an academic career. Most of us need them in some measure. In today's world of performance metrics grants are particularly critical to an academic's career.  Students often find the process opaque, faculty colleagues often share similar doubts and questions as to the fairness of results (unless one is on the receiving end, that is).

My experience with grants is that they are fair and (for the most part) criteria are clear and evening applied.  I've sat on our federal Social Science and Humanities Research Council adjudication committees numerous times since the late 1990s.  Only once, over hundreds of applications for grants and fellowships, did I see anything that was even remotely untoward (an inappropriate choice of external reviewer) and it was dealt with effectively by the granting agency staff.

Failure rates for most grans hover between 60-80% of submitted applications. So when we don't get a grant we are very often in the grand majority. Of course, granting agencies ten to report these numbers differently and frame it as 20-40% success rates. Success, in this instance, relies upon failure.  Many academic institutions use metrics of selectively (sometimes called excellence) to indicate their high quality. The underlying ideology is that if everyone gets in or gets a grant then the quality can't be that high. Ideology promotes failure more than any measure against criteria.

When I started at UBC in the mid-1990s my colleagues had developed grant failure fatigue.  They had come through a period where federal granting agencies had reduced research funding to the degree that those of them who offered advice saw no relevance in submitting grant applications. The department head of the day, however, had explicitly told me I would need to apply for grants as part of the job.  So despite my colleagues' advice I applied for grants.

It took me three separate applications to finally land a SSHRCC standard grant. In the meantime I applied to in-house grants at UBC (the failure rate was low for these grants -at that time) and managed to receive small grants every year.   In my second year I secured a provincial grant of about $75,000 to study First Nations involvement in the forest sector. All along the way my failure rate was between 60-70%.  The ticket to improving the 'success-rate' was to expand the domain of potential sources to apply to and accumulate smaller grants to use as seed money and leverage for larger grants.

As I was working on preparing grant application after grant application I had a saying playing in the back of my mind I knew from my growing up in a commercial fishing family: "you can't catch fish with the net on the deck."  Another refrain that helped was "you can't get a yes if you're not willing to take a no."

In the realm of grant getting being willing to be told no and keep going is important. Each set of the net has to be done as perfectly as possible, making improvements, adjusting to tide and wind, but no matter what one can't always guarantee there will be fish in the net.

It isn't simply matter of brute forcing it.  Each 'no' requires thinking about what could be changed. One needs to learn how to modify an application to an agency (without selling out the soul of one's research). Just as important is being able to think laterally about the kind of work one wants to do and to be willing to modify projects to accommodate to changing funding directions and interests from government.  For me this has created a fairly successful grant record and has allowed me to pursue a lot of intersting ideas and publishing projects. Getting grants, though, is only part of the picture - we need to write and get that writing published so other people can read it.

[part 2 on receiving publication rejections
As a mentor of graduate students I have maintained a collection of failed and funded research projects for them to review. I also do the same with ethics applications. I learned this obvious teaching tool from my graduate experience at York University and the CUNY Graduate Center. Learning the genre of grant writing and ethics applications is an important writing skill that differs from the skills involved in writing essays. I have also shared these with colleagues who have expressed interest.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Twitter in the Bog


What can one say. When my boys were young one of them wisely opined that "no one wins an internet argument."  So true.

There is a pithy old saw I enjoy  -"maintain your dignity so you can help others maintain theirs." Too bad I'm not better at applying it.


I treat twitter as a form of virtual ephemera. I don't mean that it has a short life  (becuase it does persist like scotch broom: beautiful, but noxious). Rather, it has a moment in a flow of events and other trivia. I find it's impact useful in a particular moment, side commentary on public events, brief conversations with others, at times tussles over ideas or perspectives, sometimes informative, but most often tendentious.

I've had some excruciating experiences; like the time I tweeted out about a Drake lipsync sponsored by the AMS.
I kinda got a kick out of it. But, not until I had blocked what seemed like thousands of aggressive trolls (I am sure their parents love them just the same . . .).   I had sent off a tweet about the "sorry state of student politics" and then left for my morning run. By the time I came back my twitter feed had exploded.

I've written about these kinds of things before (on twitter activism in March 2016, tactics of silencing Oct. 2018the nature of today's campus politics Aug. 2018,  and on academic freedom Oct. 2017).

This post is more particular.

The tweets to the left are from the #UBCBoG committee meeting of April 2, 2019. The item under discussion was Board 3 approval of the final funding release of 6.6 million dollars for the 7.6 million dollar Douglas T. Kenny Building 4th floor renovation.

Most of the questions were fairly pro-forma.

My fellow faculty member Nassif Ghoussoub closed the question period on the item with a range of questions that I understood to suggest that the faculty of arts had not fully capitalized upon external funding opportunities. It certainly seemed that if the board was to make Board 3 approval contingent upon applying for external government, or other kinds of funding, that the effect would be to put a brake on the renovations. I wondered about the tactical value of focussing on an apparent lack of external funds.

 I added another tweet to the fray and then the vote was called and it passed unanimously.

Then things got interesting.  Turns out people do read twitter feeds.

Nassif asked to speak.  He then proceeded to say that a governor had tweeted an incorrect statement about him.  He didn't name names. But I knew he meant me.  As I recall it he wanted something set up to restrict governors to only tweeting the truth. At least that's what I think was the gist of what he said. There may have even been a mention of civility and respect tossed in. But, what I do recall most clearly was that he was very annoyed by my twitter commentary.

There were a lot of ways this could have gone. Frankly, I rather wished I'd just kept tweeting and stayed silent in the meeting. What I did do was to interject to say yes, it was me and that trying to silence my voice on twitter wasn't appropriate.  Perhaps I even implied it was heavy handed. This all  necessitated the chair bringing us to order and stating we'd deal with the matter in governance committee. I trust that by the time it makes it to the governance committee there is no ham-fisted attempt to regulate online commentary.  In fact I am unconvinced there needs to be any kind of policy. Most of the people around the table appear not to avail themselves of twitter and, as such, really have little first hand experience of the genre. Nonetheless, having in the past been genuinely maligned online and even receiving anonymous threats for my stance in support of Indigenous rights, I can appreciate that my colleague only wants to be as fairly presented online as he can be.

I'll be the first to accept that I could easily have misunderstood what Nassif was asking. For that I put out a tweet apologizing for misunderstanding and misrepresenting what he said.

I also made it clear (and reiterate it here) that silencing twitter discussions is not appropriate. Nor is it reasonable to assume that every commentator will interpret every speaker just as said speaker may wish to be interpreted and represented.

One of the reasons that I try to tweet out my own statements is I am not sure that the others (like the student press or those lurking on the margins) will do me justice in how they present my words. They may well misunderstand what I have said. I may not be as clear or as articulate as I may have wished. For these reasons I back up my comments through these blog posts, tweets, and other social media to try to make certain that my intentions and perspectives are clearly understood. Sometimes this will even involve critiquing other people's statements and perspectives.

I know first hand that some people don't like how they are presented or critiqued online and that they will do their best to silence any representation they don't like.  I try to be accurate. I won't guarantee that I will always get it right. Nor will I promise that everyone I interpret, comment on, or critique will like how I represent them or what I say about their actions/statements.   I will correct an error, delete a tweet, or offer an apology if it seems appropriate.  I consider all of this just part of the process of the online debate that is now a real part of our political life.

Valuing diversity of perspective means taking those views seriously. That means respecting those views enough to  engaging them, critique them, and even dissemble them. It also means expecting the same from those who disagree with oneself. Sometimes that can be a bit rough - especially if folks aren't accustomed to having their own voices questioned.  But, if we only want sugar coating then we should get UBC's PR department in to tweet the meetings.  If we are intersted in real, frank, honest, and authentic comments then let us get on with our work!