Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

“Joshua Piker” Is a Problem:  The Cost of Our Invisible Labors

· April 12th, 2019 · No Comments


The “Joshua Piker” that Joshua Piker’s title is referring to here is not the Editor, author, and noted clothes horse, but rather the one who occasionally appears in the acknowledgments of articles and essays.

Often these acknowledgments are for Joshua Piker’s work on essays that were submitted to the William and Mary Quarterly but not published there. Some of these pieces were rejected; some received a “reject w/ option”, but the author decided not to resubmit the manuscript to the WMQ. Whatever the case, in these acknowledgments, “Joshua Piker” is almost invariably the only hint that the author benefitted from the hard work of the journal’s staff and the five readers who provided them with feedback on the manuscript in question.

And to be clear—and here Joshua Piker will move, thanks to a smooth and natural transition, from the third to the first person—I most emphatically am not criticizing the authors who thank “Joshua Piker.” I am grateful that they thought to mention me in their acknowledgments. Their willingness to do so speaks to both their generosity and the seriousness with which they take the process of scholarly conversation. Moreover, it must be said that not everyone is so generous in this regard. My second book incorporated portions of an article manuscript that was reviewed by, but not published in, the Journal of American History, and it didn’t even occur to me to use my acknowledgments to thank either Ed Linenthal for his thoughtful, careful (if wrongheaded!) decision letter or the readers who took the time to critique my work.

Viewed from one angle, this sort of omission is just human nature. “Joshua Piker” in the acknowledgments of articles and essays shows not simply that these authors are more thoughtful than I was able to be in my own work but also that they may be using “Joshua Piker” as a stand-in for a larger group of scholars. Fair enough.

Viewed from another angle, however, “Joshua Piker” is a problem.

I say that because journals in the humanities face an array of challenges. Although readership remains high because of access via digital platforms like Muse, JSTOR, and (for the WMQ) the OI Reader app, there are ever-more calls for journals to do ever-more: adopt a host of public-facing digital innovations, speed up the publishing process, mentor would-be authors, and so on. Even more alarming, conversations about everything from the various flavors of Open Access and Journal Impact Factor to the UK’s REF policies and libraries’ Cost-Per-Click are driven by people talking, thinking, planning, funding, and designing policy with the STEM scholarly ecosystem in mind.  In that context, “Joshua Piker” is working against the interest of the journal that I edit and other journals like it.

The problem is simple: so much of what journals do is invisible. That invisibility is simultaneously important and troubling. Take peer review, for example.

The various models for signed or open peer review notwithstanding, it’s my firm sense that the double-blind approach remains the gold standard. Authors need to be able to try out approaches and interpretations without worrying that their mistakes will become an enduring part of the public record. Readers need to be able to critique manuscripts without worrying that their identities will be revealed and their careers imperiled. Editors need to be able to promise both authors and readers that the process of composition, critique, revision, re-evaluation, and re-revision can be entered into with the certainty that all involved can take part in a free and frank conversation about the work at hand. As someone who has read thousands of readers’ reports for hundreds of manuscripts and then watched many authors transform their essays into publishable articles, I can tell you that the process works. There’s a reason why scholars across the humanities and social sciences repeatedly cite double-blind peer review as one of the most highly valued aspects of the publication process.

But the centrality of double-blind peer evaluation means that the review process remains something that, the occasional “Joshua Piker” reference notwithstanding, we only talk about when it leads to publication in the journal or at the press that is overseeing that particular round of peer review. As a result, a great deal of labor simply vanishes.  How much? Funny you should ask.

At the Quarterly, the average manuscript that goes through a full round of peer review before being rejected receives roughly three to four days of staff time. That includes my staff’s work processing the initial submission, sending the manuscript to readers, dealing with the reports, and sending my letter and the reports to the author. It also includes my own evaluative process of reading through the manuscript, recruiting five readers, managing the correspondence with each of those readers, reading and re-reading the reports that return, re-reading the manuscript, and writing a decision letter that is usually about four pages long. And that’s just Team Quarterly.

The readers who agree to take part in this process, of course, devote even more time to any given manuscript. When I was writing readers’ reports myself, I used to budget a day or two for an article manuscript and a week for a book manuscript. I guess your mileage might vary, but let’s assume the five readers for a given manuscript spent a little over a day apiece on the reports, leaving us with a total of six or seven days’ worth of work to write the five reports.  Add in the time TQ devoted to the manuscript in question, and we’re in the neighborhood of two weeks of labor per article manuscript.

Of course, if the manuscript receives a “reject w/ option” letter and is revised and resubmitted, then the process starts all over again. Eventually, a manuscript that I reject after the second and final round of peer review at the Quarterly will exit the peer review process having been on the receiving end of about a month’s worth of work on the part of either TQ or the readers I recruit to take part in the evaluation.

And remember: all of this is for articles which did not appear in the journal. In fact, since the Quarterly’s rejection rate for manuscripts has long hovered in the 90% range, a significant portion of the labor provided by the journal’s staff and readers is necessarily devoted to manuscripts that will never see the light of print in that journal. (See my earlier post about Quarterly Math for more fun with labor-related accounting.) That is, in fact, exactly as it should be: the journal’s staff and the readers who volunteer to take part in its peer review process are contributing to an expansive set of conversations that cannot hope to succeed if they are confined to the pages of one journal, limited to the input from one editor and the readers they recruit, or conducted without the anonymity provided by double-blind peer review.

My only concern, again, is that what’s invisible is all too easy to overlook, to ignore, or to mischaracterize. That is true in regards the peer review process, of course, but it is also true in regards the post-acceptance, pre-publication work—copyediting, source verification, and so on—that goes into transforming a manuscript into an article.  Since the “Joshua Piker” articles that I’m discussing here weren’t published in the Quarterly, my staff and I didn’t actually assist these authors in that way. But that slow, labor-intensive, and utterly critical labor is also all too often invisible,  vanishing behind our CVs’ references to “forthcoming” articles.

We all know, of course, that the process of scholarly publication depends on practices that are not adequately described in our CVs or acknowledgments. Instead of surfacing those aspects of the journal publishing process, though, we talk about—and advocate with regards to, and draft policy to deal with, and budget for—predatory pricing, gatekeeping, legacy journals, and open access models. Not peer reviewing. Or page proofing. Or typesetting. Or source verifying. Or copyediting. Or drafting maps. Or preparing digital files. Or proofing bluelines. Or all the other things that go into publishing that we routinely and resolutely do not talk about.

So, when you’re reading an article, essay, or book and “Joshua Piker” pops up in the acknowledgments, please translate those two words into “the William and Mary Quarterly’s staff and the five volunteer readers who spent somewhere between two weeks and a month critiquing this article.” It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

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