A (not so) open letter to a journal editor (or five): Part I

17 November 2010, 1655 EST

(a letter I’ve thought about writing a dozen times over the last decade of being a feminist researcher)

Dear Dr. Journal Editor,

I submitted an article to your (big) journal in my (general) field. I don’t know if it was of the quality to be published in your (spiffy) journal or not, but, to be honest, I was trusting you to figure that out. You betrayed my trust, and in spades.

Your journal presents a pluralistic face, and lets in the occasional article that transgresses the norms of traditional social science. In fact, I do a lot of reviews for your journal and many journals like it … I’m the person that you send stuff you don’t really understand to, and you often trust me to vet it.

I’m worthy of that trust. I will tell you if research in my “ism” or “paradigm” or epistemological approach is great and pathbreaking, or if it downright stinks. I don’t write better reviews for feminist poststructuralist work (which I like) than for the next positivist democratic peace article (which makes my epistemological instincts cringe) – I judge them each on their own terms (or at the very least on the terms of their particular approach to international studies)…because that’s what a good reviewer does, and, I think, what a good journal editor does.

So why doesn’t your journal give (my) feminist work that courtesy?

Because for all of your platitudes about the need to escape from paradigmatic approaches to IR, and having heard the perestroika movement, you still fundamentally don’t understand non-positivist work generally and feminist work specifically?

My article will find a publication outlet with as intense scrutiny as your journal but not as much (methodological, epistemological, or ontological) closed-mindedness that your journal has. Why? Because, though its not perfect and could benefit from good reviews, its not bad work, and you’d know that if you read it without blinders on. I know my field well enough to know that any two (or three or five) feminist reviewers taking the article on its own terms would have recommended an R&R. And I think a journal editor concerned with taking what I do seriously would have given it one.

Why do I care that it didn’t get one?

Its not about my publication record – I’m happy with that, and, though a few more articles in the “big” journals like yours might make my (academic) life easier, I’m happy with it as it is.

I sent the article to your journal because I consider your journal to be important in the field, including in the sort of work that I do, an impression that had been validated in the past with experiences I’ve had (as a manuscript writer and a reviewer) with feminist work being evaluated on its own terms, rather than having other (inappropriate for this work) standards be used as a measuring stick to which it will (by epistemological definition) not measure up. Note that this has nothing to do with whether the article is ultimately accepted or my advice as a reviewer ultimately taken … but with the integrity of the process.

You sent my work to people who just don’t understand, and, fundamentally, don’t want to. Which is their prerogative, but I thought your journal was (and it should be) above that.

For example, both reviewers attribute a “hypothesis” to the article – it has no such thing, nor would I claim such a thing for it. The first reviewer also attributes variables to the article, which, strictly speaking, the article doesn’t claim, and wouldn’t want to. Both reviewers note that the chosen “variables” are “bad measures;” that’s certainly true … of course, because there’s no such thing as a “good measure” of something intangible that people lie about anyway. The work has a different purpose – establishing potential consistency, showing theoretical logic, etc. It must, because its empirical argument is fundamentally “unproveable” in traditional terms and its epistemological stance not particularly committed to the idea of provability.

On one hand, its your journal’s choice to by default exclude work that doesn’t conform to the scientific method; it is also your journal’s choice, and indeed its right, to reject my work for whatever reason, or no reason at all.

That said, I believe(d) in your journal as a pluralist outlet that would try to think through/think about work across the positivist/postpositivist divide, and regardless of the “ism” from which it came. That’s why it was disappointing that the article was sent to people who quite clearly had not even the most basic literacy in feminist theorizing in IR, and even more disappointing that they (therefore) criticize the article both from an epistemological standpoint which it/I reject and from a place of complete theoretical ignorance.

The point is not that your journal (or others) shouldn’t publish positivist work. Or that your journal (or others) should publish the particular article I submitted. Or even that this experience is out of the ordinary for me. The point is instead is that pluralism is more than seeing someone use “gender” as a variable and publishing it … it is critically thinking about and engaging different approaches to how one thinks about global politics. A pluralist model should evaluate work on its own terms, and the journal review process I just experienced in the review process strayed from that, and that’s disappointing to me, especially given that your journal has a fairly recent history of fairness and pluralism, for real. A pluralist review process doesn’t require ignoring the things that divide us, but working hard to talk over, through, and past those divides.

Combining these reviews with the recent table(s) of contents of the journal, well, I think I’m not so sure anymore, and that’s disappointing. Its disappointing especially given the uphill battle it takes to convince (previously burned) feminist scholars to engage at all … and the fact that, so long as journals like yours are (de jure or de facto) closed to feminist work, it will remain at the margins of American IR, given the feedback loop between elite journals and tenure and promotion at elite institutions.

I “lost” this battle, and dozens like it. And each time I, or someone else, loses, and feminist work is excluded from journals like yours (even when there are token feminist scholars on the editorial board), it does hurt the relative position and power of feminist scholarship in the US R1 university community. But you (and scholars like you) think about these things from a site of power, and can fairly easily categorize this stuff as “bad” work. And, given your rejection rate, I have company. But this one matters to me.

Why? See Part II soon.


Laura Sjoberg
…who does feminist research and has never claimed otherwise