Monday, April 1, 2013

Quality control in archaeological publishing

I've been digging out some buried reading matter, and only now got around to reading the September, 2012 issue of the SAA Archaeological Record. I found the very interesting paper, "What I Learned from my Experience as Editor of American Antiquity (2009-2012)" by Alison Rautman. Alison makes a number of useful points, and her paper is well worth reading (if you haven't already). Here I want to focus on the question of quality control

The paper is divided into sections,with each subheader starting out, "What I learned about....." (writing, publication, reviewing, etc.). The first section is called "What I learned about academic writing and re-writing," and the first sentence is "I found that the single most common problem that authors have involves connecting theory and data." Alison notes that while there are a variety of theoretical perspectives and approaches, "one does have to provide clear, logical connections between theory, method, and data" (p.11). This was pointed out repeatedly by reviewers, and evidently insisted upon by Alison.

The clear linking of theory, methods and data is essential for making a rigorous argument. It is great to see the premier journal in New World archaeology insisting on this level of quality control. Now in an ideal world, it should not be necessary to remark upon the fact that a top journal insists on high quality. Duh. But given the large number of low-quality papers published in archaeology journals today, it is worth praising American Antiquity (and Alison Rautman!) for maintaining standards. When I wrote recently about difficulties that many archaeologists have in making arguments, I was referring to papers published in what many would consider top archaeology and anthropology journals (not American Antiquity). These were really deficient works, in high-profile places.

Why do so many stinkers make their way through the review process and past editorial gatekeepers to be published? I don't have a simple answer here. Reviewers and editors are not doing their jobs. Authors are not making the effort (or don't know how) to produce high-quality works. Standards are too low all around. I get really steamed when I review a bad manuscript for a journal, say why it is bad in my review, and then it gets published, often without addressing the deficiencies I have pointed out. I'm not talking about theoretical differences here, but about basic issues of quality in scholarship, citations, and argumentation.

*** PARAGRAPH ADDED APRIL 2, 2013: I forget to mention one very relevant factor here. For a variety of reasons the archaeological study of small-scale and intermediate societies is more rigorous than archaeological research on states and complex societies. All of the examples of shoddy work that I alluded to above (that is, shoddy work that I have read recently) concern the archaeology of states and empires, not the archaeology of hunter-gatherers or middle-range societies. American Antiquity focuses heavily (but not exclusively) on the latter domain. *****

In an academic discipline, quality control is everyone's job. There is no board of directors, no Académie Française, with ultimate control over the quality and value of our work as archaeologists. There is no one to give the stamp of guaranteed quality (as in the above illustration). We are all implicated in our writing, reading, reviewing, teaching, and other professional activities. But reviewers, editors, and editorial boards have particularly important roles in maintaining the quality of research and writing in our discipline. So a big salute and thanks to Alison Rautman and American Antiquity, both for doing a great job with the journal, and for sharing her insights with the rest of us. So, Alison, if I see you in Honolulu this week, I'll buy you a beer!
Rautman, Allison E.
2012    What I Learned from my Experience as Editor of American Antiquity (2009-2012). SAA Archaeological Record 12 (4, September): 11-13.

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