Monday, 6 January 2014

Pulling back the veil on academia …

One of the things about being an academic is that we face serious critique and rejection of our written work, future research plans and very ideas themselves, almost on a daily basis if we take being an academic seriously.* I’m not sure of another profession that encounters the sort of hostility we can face, although there are certainly careers (e.g. acting, writing, art, etc.) that are subject to similar if not worse levels of rejection as we encounter. If you’re interested, then see here for my rejection record.

Now, much of this critique and (especially) rejection ends up hidden from outsiders, particularly from those not subject to gossipy meetings between academics as they rail against referees and editors for rejecting their amazing new insights, etc., etc. (I do it myself, so I’m not putting myself above any of this!). This is perhaps understandable; not many people want their dirty writing held up to the world for all to read. I’ve tried to open up this largely hidden process by publishing referee and editorial comments on my rejected papers – see here. What this fails to do, however, is pull back the veil on academia more generally.

What do I mean by this? Well, most academics – I’m assuming, or hoping more like! – are not lucky enough to go straight from submission of their writing to publication without having to jump through some hoops. Often, we have to jump through many hoops to get publication as Nate Jensen outlined in a blog post last year; what Jensen did was trace one paper from original submission to eventual acceptance, which involved submissions to six (yes, six!) different journals. Considering that his paper got published in the end, it seems ridiculous that it was rejected by five other journals, but that’s academia for you! You can also read Tom Pepinsky’s response to Jensen and other stories of submission and rejection.

What we might conclude from this is that getting a journal article published is a bit of crab-shoot – submit, see what happens, submit somewhere else if you get a no. I’ve suggested this as a strategy elsewhere on this blog – see here. Now, while I am starting to think that the refereeing system is broken – quite significantly if Retraction Watch is anything to go by – that is not what this post is really about. What I wanted to do is show those who are new to the game that below the surface, academia is a lot messier than it appears on the surface.

Behind every list of publications on every academic’s website is a long road to publication that is often bumpy, sometimes leads down blind-alleys or dangerous forest paths, and often simply off cliff edges. What our lists of publications do is obscure the fact that to get them requires that we face rejection, requests for revision, (often brutally) critical comments, major changes in direction, etc., etc. The list of publications is a façade hiding the messiness of academic publishing. What I’m going to do below is go through all my journal articles to illustrate this point. I’m going to outline how many submissions each went through, how many sets of revisions, and so on – I’m not, however, going to go through any of my rejected papers as I’ve done that elsewhere.

  • Birch, K. and Tyfield, D. (2013) Theorizing the bioeconomy: Biovalue, biocapital, bioeconomics or … what?, Science, Technology and Human Values 38(3): 299-327.
    • One set of revisions: two referee comments which were pretty clear and easy enough to deal with.
  • Levidow, L., Birch, K. and Papaioannou, T. (2013) Divergent paradigms of European agro-food innovation: The knowledge-based bio-economy (KBBE) as an R&D agenda, Science, Technology and Human Values 38(1): 94-125.
    • One rejection: again, this built off a paper we had had rejected by Social Studies of Science, and again we moved in a slightly different direction. 
    • One set of revisions: two referee comments with comments that were relatively easy to deal with.
  • The SIGJ2 Writing Collective (2012) What can we do? The challenge of being new academics in neoliberal universities, Antipode 44(4): 1055-1058. 
    • Two sets of revisions: this started out as a much longer piece but ended up whittled down to a shorter ‘intervention’ article. We had two referee comments, both of which basically disagreed with the framing of the piece so we cut out the contentious stuff and focused more on our perspective of our positions in academia.
    • Change in direction: ended up being a pretty major change in direction as result of the revisions.
  • Birch, K. (2012) Knowledge, place and power: Geographies of value in the bioeconomy, New Genetics and Society 31(2): 183-201.
    • This paper was a ‘troubled’ one that went through several iterations. 
    • Two rejections: first rejected by Progress in Human Geography after three rounds of revision; then rejected by Socio-Economic Review after two rounds. Each time I changed the paper slightly so by the time I submitted it to New Genetics and Society it was totally different from the original paper. 
    • One set of revisions: once I’d submitted it to NG&S it was fairly smooth sailing with two referee comments and relatively easy changes requested.
  • Levidow, L., Birch, K. and Papaioannou, T. (2012) EU agri-innovation policy: Two contending visions of the knowledge-based bio-economy, Critical Policy Studies 6(1): 40-66.
    • One rejection: again, building off a paper we had rejected by Social Studies of Science, and again we moved in a slightly different direction. 
    • One set of revisions: two referee comments (I think) – I didn’t really deal with them so not sure.
  • Birch, K. (2011) “Weakness” as “strength” in the Scottish life sciences: Institutional embedding of knowledge-based commodity chains in a less-favoured region, Growth and Change 42(1): 71-96. 
    • One set of revisions: two referees, one of whom was quite negative. I guess this counted as ‘major revisions’, but it was a relatively easy revision process all things considered and some (decisive) editing, which I appreciate.
  • Birch, K. and Cumbers, A. (2010) Knowledge, space and economic governance: The implications of knowledge-based commodity chains for less-favoured regions, Environment and Planning A 42(11): 2581-2601.
    • Two sets of revision: three referee comments, two positive and one slightly less so. Think this could be classified as ‘major revisions’ although it was sent back to referees and we then had to make some more (superficial) changes.
  • Birch, K., Levidow, L. and Papaioannou, T. (2010) Sustainable capital? The neoliberalization of nature and knowledge in the European knowledge-based bio-economy, Sustainability 2(9): 2898-2918.
    • One rejection: built on a paper we had rejected by Social Studies of Science, but a totally different direction (including theoretical and disciplinary focus). 
    • One set of revisions: three referee comments I think, all of whom were positive so this involved only ‘minor-ish revisions’. Pretty simply done really.
  • Birch, K., MacKinnon, D. and Cumbers, A. (2010) Old industrial regions in Europe: A comparative assessment of economic performance, Regional Studies 44(1): 35-53.
    • Two or three sets of revision: three referee comments I think, one of whom wasn’t satisfied throughout if memory serves (and it never does) - again (from my perspective), decisive editing. Other two referee comments were more generous so I think this was ‘major revisions’. A relatively smooth process apart from that one referee.
  • Birch, K. and Mykhnenko, V. (2009) Varieties of neoliberalism? Restructuring in large industrially-dependent regions across Western and Eastern Europe, Journal of Economic Geography 9(3): 355-380.
    • One Rejection: originally rejected by Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society because it wasn’t on topic enough for the specific special issue (all the journal’s issues are special issues). 
    • Two sets of revision: only one referee comment, although the editor said another referee had sent them confidential comments confirming the first referees assessment. Basically ‘major revisions’ or ‘reject and resubmit’, I’m not sure which since it got sent back to the referee. We worked out who that first referee was from the ‘properties’ of the PDF review document we received (beware referees!). We managed to make the necessary changes after some more conceptual work and then received a few (very minor) comments about extending the conclusion.
    • Change in direction: although this was a very smooth process all told, it did involve a significant development of the argument, which was no bad thing and really did improve it in my mind.
  • MacKinnon, D., Cumbers, A., Pike, A., Birch, K. and McMaster, R. (2009) Evolution in economic geography: Institutions, political economy and adaptation, Economic Geography 85(2): 129-150 [Evolutionary Economic Geography symposium]. 
    • I wasn’t primary author so played a more back-seat role on this one. 
    • Two sets of revision: I think we got four referee comments on this, all very detailed but strong support from the editors to rewrite it. We also ended up writing a rejoinder to three commentators invited as part of a sympsosium.
  • Birch, K. (2009) The knowledge-space dynamic in the UK bioeconomy, Area 41(3): 273–284.
    • One of the few things I’ve had published in journals from my PhD - basically I didn't have much desire to do anything with it at that point in my life. 
    • One set of revisions: two referee comments, one good and one bad. Basically ‘major revisions’ requiring a little bit of development but not significant work.
  • Birch, K. (2008) Neoliberalising bioethics: Bias, enhancement and economistic ethics, Genomics, Society and Policy 4(2): 1-10.
    • One rejection: this was derived from a paper rejected by the journal Ethics. 
    • One set of revisions: three referee comments I think, and somewhere between minor and major revisions. Involved some reworking but mainly it involved adding more to the paper, so it was way past the word limit when I’d finished. I assumed journals put low limits in place because they know this will happen.
  • Birch, K. and Whittam, G. (2008) Critical survey: The third sector and the regional development of social capital, Regional Studies 42(3): 437-450.
    • Basically a review article about regional development and the social economy. 
    • One (or two) set of revisions: we got two referee comments on this one, and ‘major revisions’ as far as I remember. The revisions weren’t too tricky but it did take some time to get this into shape as it was mainly a theoretical piece.
  • Birch, K. (2008) Alliance-driven governance: Applying a global commodity chains approach to the UK biotechnology industry, Economic Geography 84(1): 83-103.
    • This evolved out of my PhD thesis research, but wasn’t using any of my thesis data. 
    • Three sets of revision: I think I got three or four referee comments on this one, and a ‘major revisions’ (or worse) decision. I think it was then re-sent to the referees so it may have been a ‘reject and resubmit’. The editors were very helpful, even though they effectively told me my first revisions were totally inadequate. Also involved some significant copy-editing help from one editor.
  • Birch, K. (2007) Knowledge, space and biotechnology, Geography Compass 1(5): 1097-1117.
    • Fairly easy paper to write as it was basically my thesis literature review. 
    • One set of revisions: two referee comments, and ‘minor revisions’. Again, one of the referees revealed themselves to me afterwards. The revisions I made weren’t difficult and it was then accepted.
  • Birch, K. (2007) The virtual bioeconomy: The ‘failure’ of performativity and the implications for bioeconomics, Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 14: 83-99.
    • One rejection: sort of evolved out of the paper I had rejected by Economy and Society (see below). 
    • Two sets of revision: two referee comments and a ‘reject and revise’ decision, I think (again, reliance on my memory isn’t going to be the most reliable way to do this but I have no choice). I don’t think it was sent to the referees again though, but maybe it was. The editors then wanted me to make sure my arguments addressed the special issue topic (‘bioeconomy’).
    • Change in direction: involved a relatively significant shift in the argument from submission to publication, which definitely made the paper better.
  • Birch, K. and Cumbers, A. (2007) Public sector spending and the Scottish economy: Crowding out or adding value?, Scottish Affairs 58: 36-56.
    • Came from a report written for UNISON Scotland. 
    • One set of revisions: two referee comments and basically ‘minor revisions’; again making very reasonable comments and I found out who one of the referees was afterwards.
  • Birch, K. (2006) The neoliberal underpinnings of the bioeconomy: The ideological discourses and practices of economic competitiveness, Genomics, Society and Policy 2(3): 1-15.
    • One rejection: came out of a paper rejected by Economy and Society. 
    • One set of revisions: two referee comments, and ‘major revisions’; all very reasonable and easy enough to deal with; did entail some significant rewriting, but mainly the addition of a new section as far as I recall (which I do badly at the best of times). One of the referees told me who they were afterwards.
    • Change in direction: there was a very significant difference between the original submission to Economy and Society and this paper.
  • Birch, K. (2005) Beneficence, determinism and justice: An engagement with the argument for the genetic selection of intelligence, Bioethics 19(1): 12-28.
    • My memory, weak as it is, is telling me I only had one referee comment on this paper; the other may have been for editors’ eyes only, I don’t know. 
    • One set of revisions: basically the referee thought the paper was flawed, so it was ‘major revisions’, but they also thought that there was a scrap of something worth saving. I worked my arse off to do those revisions right and rewrote the whole paper pretty much. Seemed to work as it was accepted.
    • Change in direction: the original paper I submitted bore very little resemblance to the final paper with this one; I ended up doing a lot more reading in order to ground and develop the argument, which was very beneficial.
* By “seriously”, I mean engaging in academic debate as opposed to other forms of public presentation of our research or activities. That means writing academic articles that are subject to peer review and then the unblinking eye of critical scholars everywhere.

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