LINGUIST List 5.188

Sat 19 Feb 1994

Disc: How institutions classify us: A journal editor's viewpoint

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  1. Whitaker Harry A., How our institutions classify us: A journal editor's viewpoint

Message 1: How our institutions classify us: A journal editor's viewpoint

Date: Fri, 18 Feb 1994 13:44:31 How our institutions classify us: A journal editor's viewpoint
From: Whitaker Harry A. <>
Subject: How our institutions classify us: A journal editor's viewpoint

Alexis Manaster-Ramer's thesis that "departments in their hiring and promotion
policies, journals and conference organizers in their acceptance
policies, etc.) treat linguists as falling into three categories"
... and ... "the higher you are in the hierarchy the less you are
required by editors for example to pay attention to those below you
(and vice versa), the higher you are, the less you have to do to justify
your basic assumptions, etc. (and vice versa), the higher you are, the
more access you will have to wide audiences, etc." invites a reply;
it may invite a public discussion as well.

Falling into the institutional category of journal editor (since 1974)---
in which capacity I have substantively and, I believe, amicably interacted
with (applied) linguists--- I see the situation a bit differently.

Over the (several) years I have talked with a number of other editors of
psychology, neurology, linguistics and history journals; it is clear to me
that any reasonably experienced and passably knowledgeable editor of a
refereed journal can, with a modicum of planning and perhaps some collusion,
arrange for a sufficiently negative review of any submitted paper as to cause
it to be rejected. It is somewhat more difficult, although certainly within
the realm of the achievable, to arrange for a sufficiently positive review
of any submitted paper to cause it to be accepted. Every editor that I
know (with one exception) is acutely aware of and goes to great lengths to
avoid both outcomes. The exception is no longer an editor; he was replaced by
his publisher who succumbed to the lack of subscriptions and the dearth
of submitted manuscripts, both likely to have been causally linked to the
poor editing. And that, of course, is the first point: I give my colleagues
credit for being able to determine if the refereeing is fair and if the
papers which are published adequately represent the field (caveat: there
are, of course, specialized journals). Failure at the editorial level
has simple and direct consequences--perhaps not instantaneous, but real.

My second point, however, is that I do not believe that the "consequences"
are what motivate most editors to try to do a good job. As simple as it may
sound, I think that the primary motivation to be a good journal editor is
the recognition by one's peers that one is doing so. A close second is the
pleasure of being in the middle of things and thus contributing, albeit
indirectly, to developments in the field.

Now that my view of the the sociological framework has been stated, let me
turn to the nuts and bolts. It is clearly the case that some papers get
rejected that should not have been and the inverse. My favorite saying is
"50% of the papers being published today aren't going to be worth a
plugged nickel in 10 years...the problem is, I don't know which 50%" Some
journal editors prefer to err on the side of caution, and will reject
papers that have marginal reviews, or, perhaps more interestingly, that
have controversial reviews (1 strongly for, 1 strongly against, etc.).
I respect that prerogative, though my own preference is to err on the side
of the author. And finally, it goes without saying that mistakes are made,
by _all_ concerned. I have rejected papers which later appeared in other
journals and, after reading them again, decided I liked them so much I
wrote and asked for a reprint; I have published papers that were rejected by
other journals. I have been sent reviews which could not have been based on
reading the paper in question. I have been sent papers which should have
embarassed their authors, which were so tragically bad that I could not in
good conscience ask anyone to review. It is not a panglossian world, after
all, but in the main I think the system works, warts and all.

Harry Whitaker
Editor: Brain & Language
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