For background on the 60 Days of Journal Article Writing, please click here.
What do you do when good journals publish bad articles? One consequence of studying journal articles this semester (in addition to my usual focus on scholarly books) is reading more key journals, where most of the articles are quite good and sometimes excellent. But once in a while a clunker gets through. I'm still fuming at one I encountered on a woman writer whom I have studied for some years. The article was published rather recently, yet seemed ignorant of the previous decade's scholarship on that particular woman, attributing an anonymous broadsheet newspaper to her that previous scholars demonstrated she probably did not write, mis-stating the circumstances surrounding her arrest, mis-identifying with whom she was arrested, and (to add insult to injury), citing Foucault and Habermas as somehow having commented on the result. The Foucault quote was particularly tacked-on and clumsy -- it wasn't quite "'Books are good, notes Foucault," but it was close.
So how did this mess sneak past the censors in a journal that I won't name because it should have known better? Sometimes it boils down to a common problem that most editors acknowledge but none know how to remedy: the vulnerabilities and perils of peer review. When peer review works it is a rigorous way to subject new work to scholarly scrutiny. When it fails (and it sometimes does), several possible things can happen:
1. Sometimes peers don't review. If a scholar is very late reviewing a promised article, a desperate editor can end up enlisting an alternate, perhaps at the last minute;
2. Sometimes peers do review, but incompletely. Skimming an article and approving it even when it has unfamiliar content (such as, in this case, references to an author who is obscure even for area specialists) is fraught with peril. Just because the article's author gets Samuel Johnson right, for example, doesn't mean s/he has done a good job with Frances Burney, and it behooves the peer to spot-check some of those lesser-known facts. Many don't;
3. Sometimes biased peers do the review. In Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, Belcher cites incidents (although she doesn't name names) when an article went to a peer reviewer who recognized it as the work of a particular author and approved it because of a sense of collegiality. This conflict of interest isn't supposed to happen, but it does. It is particularly a problem when an author is the student of a board member at the journal, yet does not disclose that to the editor, and the board member does not recuse him or herself.
I love editors, and I can't think of a reason why one of them would knowingly pass a substandard paper through their system. They have too much to lose, and most of the ones I've met are ethical simply because the unethical ones all went into other fields where the rewards for malfeasance are richer. But peer reviewers are another matter altogether, because they comprise such a wide range of individuals with varying degrees of interest in the outcome.
What's the moral of the story? For one thing, those of us who value good scholarship can offer to participate in peer review. The more we agree to review and do so in a thorough yet timely fashion, the better for our professions overall. Editors need this support, and those of us who want to publish in the best journals owe it to our colleagues. One of the first things you can do after publishing some key articles and (if your profession demands it) your first major book is to turn around and give back to the system that benefited you by becoming a scrupulous peer reviewer. You don't have to do it very often, and if you're busy you can't, but even one article per year will help the system. If we widen the pool of potential peer reviewers, and if every good scholar begins to consider this service part of her or his professional mission, better articles will result, and fewer clunkers will sneak through.