Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Horror stories from the trenches of archaeological publishing

Most scholars can come up with a number of "horror stories" about their experiences in publishing. I'll tell a few such stories here (anonymously, to protect the guilty), and I invite readers to send me some of their horror stories that I can post. There are several reasons for doing this (other than the fact that some of these are entertaining): such stories can show younger scholars that they are not alone when they are torpedoed by a clueless editor or a biased reviewer, and it stimulates thinking about ethical and other professional issues in publishing. Some of these stories (though not necessarily the two presented below) happened to me, and some were told to me by others.

Horror story #1: The edited book that quietly disappeared

Graduate student Flint Cannery was asked to contribute a paper to an edited volume honoring a senior scholar with whom he had worked. As a student with few publications, Flint felt honored about this. He had a nice paper almost ready to go, so he worked it into shape, sent it off to the volume editors, and added it to his CV as a paper in press. After not hearing any news for more than two years, Flint asked one of the editors what was happening with the volume, and was told that the volume had been scrapped. “Didn’t the other editors tell you? We dropped the idea over a year ago.”

This was a horror story for the imaginary Flint, because he wasted more than two years in publishing his paper. The paper was eventually published, but for a grad student or young professional, it is important to get papers published in a timely fashion. This could also be a horror story for the profession in that a potentially valuable book was scrapped, although on the other hand it may have been a typical bad edited volume, in which case the episode may have been a positive event for the profession (see my earlier posts on bad edited volumes). But in any case, this was bad for young Flint Cannery. Come to think of it, I have a paper in a similar situation myself right now: commissioned informally a few years ago for an edited volume that has yet to happen, although the editor(s) have never said one way or another whether the book will come together or not. Hmmmmm…….

Horror story #2: Biased reviewers

New assistant professor Ima Selectionist was disappointed when her paper was rejected by one of the leading archaeology journals. The paper received two reviews, one that was positive and in favor of publication, and one that was virulently negative. The negative review was obviously from someone who disagreed strongly with Ima’s theoretical approach. When she consulted her dissertation chair, Ima was told that the editor was also known for his anti-selectionist views. The same day that she received the rejection notice, Ima received a copy of a third review of her paper, very positive, directly from a reviewer who had just submitted it to the journal (evidently too late to make a difference).

So what should Ima do? Should she contact the editor and ask for a reconsideration? Or perhaps ask her dissertation chair to do this? Maybe she should simply send the paper to journal more receptive to selectionist approaches in archaeology. This is a horror story because a (presumably good) paper was rejected due to theoretical bias. The horror applies to both young Ima and to the profession generally (since a biased journal editor is not a good thing). By the way, I could have named the character Ima Poststructuralist or Ima Marxist; the important point here is the bias, not the particular theoretical orientation.

Do you have an interesting horror story? Send me an email if you want me to post it.


Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience to horror story #1. I was invited to participate in a small conference that was going to result in a book (they said they had an informal agreement with a publisher). I was happy because many respected senior scholars would be there, and I am mere graduate student. I presented at the conference and got lots of good feedback on my paper. The conference organizers sent out an email explaining the details for the publication. I wrote my chapter and turned it in a few days before the deadline. I didn't hear anything for a while, but I wasn't worried. At the next SAA meeting, I ran into the conference organizer and asked how the book was going. She told me that I was the only one who had turned in a chapter on time and that they only currently had 3 chapters. It looked like it would probably be a while before they were able to move forward on the book. A year later, the situation wasn't any better and it looked to me like the book would never come out. I told the editor that I felt that I needed to pull my chapter and submit it else where because, as a graduate student, I can't sit on a publishable work any longer. I recently submitted it to a journal and it was accepted with minor changes. If only I hadn't wasted two years.

Michael E. Smith said...

These horror stories are pretty tame in comparison to the examples from psychology described in the blog, Child's Play:

Anonymous said...

And what is an edited volume comes out 8-10 years after the actual event took place? There was a conference in 2000 on a specific subject and the edited volume came out in 2008!
And then, there are the horror stories of not only biased peer reviewers, but also biased PhD assessors......