Friday, December 24, 2010

Unpublishable Research

One of the reasons why I dislike the current format of academic publishing is that peer review often prevents truly innovative, original research from geting published. Anonymous reviewers cannot help judging the article on the basis of what they believe to be right. A piece that departs too dramatically from their preconceived notions, is judged by them as unfit for publication. As a result, the easiest kind of research to publish is the one that is based on a collection of accepted platitudes that are in vogue in the academic discipline in question at each given moment.

As of now, I have been able to identify three main blunders that an academic can make, rendering their research unpublishable. I have no doubt that, as time passes, I will keep discovering more of such areas.

1. There is a list of critical "authorities" in my field, whose work one should avoid contradicting in any way. Obviously, these are older, well-established academics who have supervised many graduate students. As a result, almost every peer review panel contains a former student, a friend, or a family member of such academic. It is weary work trying to figure out whose "words of wisdom" should not be disputed under any circumstances. There is also the danger of getting precisely the academic with whose ideas you argue to review your article. One might believe that an academic should be ecstatic that another scholar has read their work and has found it significant enough to merit a response. That, however, is not the case.
"This is a very well-researched and well-written article that makes an important contribution to the study of novel X," one reviewer wrote to me recently. "Nevertheless, I do not recommend it for publication because the author attempts to refute findings of scholar Y. Dr. Y is THE LEADING scholar in this field. It is UNACCEPTABLE that ANY ONE should question his scholarship." 
It went on like that for close to a page, but I will not bore you with the entire thing. Well, when a reviewer starts capitalizing words like a giddy teenager in his first chatroom, one can't help realizing that there is something deeply personal at stake here.

2. It is my contention that identity works like ideology. It can only exist if it's very existence is never questioned. It operates through constant reiterations of meaningless statements ("he needs to search for his identity," "her loos of her identity," etc.) that obscure the fact that this concept is completely without substance. Any weakening of the ideological edifice of identity produces a deep-seated anxiety in those who have come to accept it as a reality that always has been and always will be. Every time I see a reviewer begin to babble incoherently, I know that I must have stepped on their identity fixation.
"I don't understand what the author is trying to suggest. It cannot be that identity is unnecessary. Surely, no one will go as far as stating that. Then what is the point the author is trying to make? This entire piece leads us to question the very underpinnings of identity. Is that the author's goal? I'd like to believe it isn't," wrote another reviewer.
Sometimes, one can just feel the reviewer being genuinely upset over one's questioning of identity to the degree where one would like to ask the poor, tortured reviewer to pause and breathe.

3. Feminism is even worse than identity in terms of trying to publish research on this subject. There are two accepted truisms in feminist criticism that nobody whould dare question, no matter how much textual evidence you might accumulate contradicting these precious platitudes.

a) Platitude one holds that the massive gains of women's liberation movements in Western countries that took place in the 1970ies will result in transformation of literature written by women into "a celebration of womanhood" (whatever that is.) We have lived with these predictions of the imminent appearance of the celebratory genre for almost 40 years now, and they have proven to be false. Female literature en masse does not "celebrate" anything. (I'm sure a couple of novels here and there does, but it's absolutely not an overwhelming trend of any kind.) If anything, female writing in English and in Spanish (I don't follow anything else as closely) has become darker than ever. Mentioning that, however, (or worse still, trying to analyze the reasons why there is so much darkness in female wiritng nowadays) will render your researche pretty much unpublishable.

b) Platitude two maintains that feminism has lost its relevance for the younger generations because it failed to provide enough racial, ethnic, and class variety. This is one of the most wide-spread and insistent myths out there. Go to a feminist conference, and you will hear one scholar after another repeat this unintelligent statement with a glassy-eyed fervor that accepts no questioning. You can bring mountains of textual evidence (it isn't just a manner of speaking. I can, indeed, bring mountains of textual evidence) suggesting that time has come to move beyond this tired, meaningless platitude. However, whenever I send out an article suggesting that there are other venues to explore, I don't even get a review in response. I receive sheets of paper that say only (without as much as a greeting):
"We will not publish this." Or "we will not be able to publish this."
Why academic feminism got so stuck on an uninspired idea some unintelligent critic generated somewhere in the 80ies is a mystery to me. All I know is that there is now an unbridgeable gap between feminist criticism and actual literature that is being produced and read. Writers keep writing, readers keep reading, while the feminist critics keep ignoring all evidence that the tired pieties of the 70ies and the 80ies do not really work. And, of course, they keep holding back those scholars who are trying to move beyond this deadlock.


Snarky Writer said...

I haven't done reams of publishing yet, but I have noticed the tendency you speak of for reviewers to want to see what they expect to see. One paper I wrote kept getting kicked back by the same reviewer who essentially wanted me to make a point that SHE wanted to make, regardless of the fact that my paper had nothing to do with that.

As a scholar of literature with a deep interest in psychology, I fear that my future attempts to steer literary criticism away from Freud, Jung, and Campbell (but especially Freud) and toward models of psychology that use methods that actual psychologists are using will meet with the same resistance you mention with your feminist criticism. Psychologists no longer use Freud; while he was good for a starting point, they've moved beyond his limited and flawed work, yet literary critics cling to Freud for absolutely no reason I can see. But I get a feeling that attempting to move toward cognitive, behavioral, or evolutionary psychology in literary criticism will be an uphill battle at best.

Clarissa said...

Oh yes, you are very right. In Hispanic literature, for instance, any research that mentions just the word "psychology" is extremely difficult to publish.

I, for one, dislike cognitive, behavioral, or evolutionary psychology with a passion. But if I were an editor of my own journal, I would have absolutely published your research. What's the point of always printing the same thing? Only critical disagreement can lead to new discoveries, insights and results.

Pagan Topologist said...

It is different in mathematics, in a curious way. We always know when what we say is correct, and everyone agrees, except for the occasional error which leads to either a retraction or a correction. The disagreement occurs when we consider the questions of whether something is significant, meaningful, or important. Here, opinion varies greatly.