Academic publishing and the (hidden) dynamics of censorship

By Dr. Tanja Müller 

I just had an article published in Africa Spectrum on Universal Rights versus Exclusionary Politics, using aspirations and despair among Eritrean refugees in Tel Aviv as the case study. This article was originally submitted to a different Journal that focuses on ‘Africa’, and the way it was rejected raises serious concerns about peer review processes and how individual hatred and vanities can impede on those – if the editors allow this to happen.

For the original submission, two referees were consulted. The verdict of one of those was that the article was a fascinating piece, constituting a timely and interesting work of scholarship, and to publish with minor suggestions. The verdict of the other reviewer was not a verdict; really, it was a rant, frequently crossing the boundaries between professional judgment and personal insults. The field of Eritrean Studies is a small field with clear fault lines, and one can usually work out easily who the reviewer has been.

The journal editors sent me both reviews, apologizing for the tone in one, with the verdict to reject the paper straight away. I was, to be frank, quite astonished. Not because of the rejection itself, I would have had no problem with that if based on sound judgment and evaluation, as this is part of the experience of life in academia. But the fact that what was a six-page long demolition, often using single sentences out of context to make rather insulting remarks, would count as the base for that verdict, left me quite speechless. I would have at least expected a third reviewer to be consulted.

I did raise the manner of feedback and decision making with the editors at the time, and got a reply along the following lines: They themselves were a bit taken aback by the tone of the review – and that there had been a discussion whether to send it to me at all. But that was not really the issue, I rather know what decisions are based on than not. They then continued to say that neither editor had any particular expertise on the topic thus had to rely on suggestions of others on adequate reviewers, and once those were chosen one needed to respect their verdicts – well, in this case the verdict of one of those, who happened to be somebody obviously not fit to write such reviews in the spirit of the game. It was also suggested that in such cases of a bitterly divided scholarly community one might point out upon submission certain people from whom one might not get a fair review – but then cautioned that such a statement might be treated with suspicion in itself.

I do not know how many papers never get published because of a personal vendetta by certain reviewers (I do know some of my colleagues working on equally divided area studies themes do not submit to certain journals because of who sits on the editorial board, but do not think this almost self-censorship should become part of academic practice) – and in fact the reviewer in question has a history of feedback that is personal rather than topical. Also, if the editors would have cared to look, I had some years back reviewed one of the books of said person quite critically, and this might, one would have wished, given some pause for thought and drawn a third reviewer in. Ironically, under the previous editorship, a third opinion was always sought in such cases. I once was that third reviewer for an article by said referee that was badly written but dealt with an important subject I found worth publishing, so I had a role to play in ‘saving’ that submission.

In the end, this editorial decision-making that to my mind amounts to a form of censorship and certainly contravenes what I would regard appropriate standards of a refereeing process did me a great favour. The paper is out now in an Open Access Journal (that even has a higher impact factor – not that I care much about that in making decisions where to publish my work) – something I think all academic publications should be. I find the fact that publishing houses make a profit from often publicly financed scholarly work that should clearly be available to everybody in the general public interested enough to read it unethical and rather appalling. But that would be the theme for another blog. And the readers of this blog may judge for themselves what they make of my article – freely available to all.

 

The article in question is Tanja R. Müller, “Universal rights versus exclusionary politics: Aspirations and despair among Eritrean refugees in Tel Aviv,” Afrika Spectrum 50, no.3(2015) : 3-27, available at http://journals.sub.uni-hamburg.de/giga/afsp/article/view/886/893

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