This is the third in a series of three posts that comprise Hannah Gascho Rempel’s story. In her first story part, When you look at a body of literature…, Hannah discussed her recent ties to scholarly publishing, investigating its history, as well as her experiences as a journal editor. In her second story part, The system was meant for me, Hannah discusses her privilege and delves deeper into her experiences as an editor, hoping to make positive changes at the journal.
In this third and final story part, Hannah discusses her experiences withdrawing a journal article and publishing it elsewhere, as well her experiences with open peer review.
Hannah Gascho Rempel
Position: Professor and Science Librarian at Oregon State University Libraries
Fun Fact: Hannah teaches a Learning Through Play seminar class, in which students create games in small groups (and learn about research). This term the theme for their games is Space, and she’s really looking forward to seeing how they pull together learning opportunities for aliens and astronauts.
Emily: But what do you think peer review should be for? Like why are we doing this?
I was trying to think about that ahead of time, too. Ideally I would think of it as a conversation in a community that makes a work stronger. So, for example, there’s the open peer review style of reviewing at this one journal, it is a little bit of an apprenticing. I’m not sure if they’re still doing the Google Doc version but you see the comments along the way. I wouldn’t say the quality of the feedback I received via that particular venue was very good. I would say that because I don’t feel the reviewers I happened to be matched up with had either all that much experience or experience in my particular fields. And by fields I’m talking pretty broad like instruction librarianship. They just didn’t have that and so the feedback they gave was a little bit like, “okay, I will use my skills from my very first advisor and say the polite thank you for your helpful feedback. However, I know this and this and this too.”
So, the other side of that when it’s obviously closed and you get back the reviewer two because I have myself received the reviewer two-ish. Not a like horrible horrible version of that, but it’s this false community conversation then, [where you’re solely communicating via a written format, and there] are all these things about that written format that make it hard to [communicate] and they don’t quite get enough context and they don’t know you and they don’t know your history and that’s all by design. You’re not supposed to know all the things. So they give their feedback coming from up here and they’re like, “have you thought about this?” And you want say, “Totally. I’ve spent like half my career thinking about this. Like uh huh, yeah. But thanks.” And so the idea of that is of your hands motion in the air passing each other by and not having real conversation. The ideal of that [conversation in community] gets missed. Ideally you would be getting helpful feedback, because I do value much of the feedback that I have gotten. As with most people I, of course, don’t value it like two minutes after I’ve gotten it, but a day after I’ve gotten it then it’s situated a little more. You look back and you’re like, “Okay, it’s true.” How would they have known I have been thinking about that for half my career? I didn’t tell them that at all. How would anyone know? So yes, I should reframe that [idea I was writing about in my manuscript draft]. I should set it up better this way. Fair enough. And then you reread it, your own work later and you’re like, “Yeah, that was a better option. I’m glad I did that.”
Emily: It’s interesting to hear that you had not as robust of an experience with open review. In my experience open review has been more robust than closed review so that’s interesting that you had that experience. Peer review can – you never know. I’m wondering if that has colored what you think of open peer review now? Would you try again based on that experience?
I published twice in that open peer-reviewed journal, so I have tried it again although I wouldn’t say that the second time I tried it for the open peer review part of things. I’m still open to it. I’m open to a lot of things. I think in some – yeah, by having more experience in the profession just because I’ve been part of the profession longer, in theory I would then know people who I can get helpful feedback from. That said I don’t know all the people by any stretch. It’s a huge profession so I would always be missing out on some voices if I only ever sent my work to people that I know and value their feedback. So peer review can have that value when an editor is making some of those choices for you, finding new people and pulling in somebody who has a different background and maybe that would be helpful. I’m still open to having other approaches, but I think again if I could just give it to Janet Webster half the time I would probably get 90 percent of my helpful feedback from Janet Webster feedback and then 10 percent from the person that I don’t know behind, not even behind the wall of the open peer review but somebody that is totally new to me.
Emily: Yeah, interesting. Are you saying that because the journal asked you to say who are you going to ask to do this? I just want to connect back to that.
Right, because they do have the ask part of it. I did have one other more recent experience though of asking somebody. So the discipline that I, the science discipline that I grew up in used double-blind the whole way through, so recently I had a single-blind experience, -ish. I included a list of people to be included in the ask and then when I got the feedback I was like, “Oh, clearly they chose Greg.” Even though Greg’s name is nowhere on that. I was like, “Ha ha, wow. Greg, you can’t tone that part of you down at all.” But it was helpful so I guess having had a couple versions of that now, one at the openly reviewed journal and this other experience, asking someone – I guess what I’m getting at is there’s enough strategy in asking someone when it’s going to be for publication versus the informal Janet ask, when Janet is not going to be – I’m using Janet as shorthand for all the people, but when it’s not going to influence whether or not you get accepted or not.
Emily: What do you think given all these issues? You’ve seen issues of where on your end as author it’s supposedly opaque and you weren’t supposed to know it was Greg, but it was Greg. You have seen it as an editor where you have this reviewer two, where it’s not necessarily abusive, it’s just cursory and people just aren’t necessarily engaging deeply or robustly. How do we move past those issues of peer review—whether it’s an open peer review with transparent open identities or not—how do we fix the problems that we’re seeing in peer review?
That is a good question. I thought when I was an editor that a way that I would fix it was by including my feedback to the reviewers. So when a decision was made and the thank you for your service kind of email goes out to the reviewers and it included both of the reviewers’ feedback and then the content management system piped those two things in. It didn’t pipe in my feedback though, so I’d dutifully copy and paste my feedback as a “subtle” – Hannah is using air quotes – way of being like, “What you could have done was provide this kind of feedback.” I think for a few of the folks that did help, particularly people who I had invited to the editorial board—and not that it was about me inviting them, just maybe that they were newer and so were looking for inputs—so that did shape their feedback some. Just having an example of what was being looked for. But then the [peer reviewer feedback] form, I did change the form some over time. I changed the peer-review form to focus more on, to say, “Please look at…” It’s one of those things where we don’t always have a methods section in the kind of work we do, the kind of writing that we do, so it doesn’t follow the flow and so saying something on the form, like, “Do the results follow from the methods used?” Well that doesn’t even apply to a lot of the kinds of writing we do. So some of the checks that would be in a science writing just don’t follow. So, “Is it clear? Does it make logical sense?” sometimes is the best you can do and that feels so wide open. I tried to be a little more specific, but it was hard to do when there are all these forms of how people write in our scholarly conversation that are okay. I’m not saying that everything should be an empirical study by any stretch, but then it makes it harder to standardize and to know what you’re looking for. I will say the other thing I did try and get at in the form was that folks did not need to spend any time on copy editing and that grammatical decisions didn’t need to influence their feedback. And people did make that adjustment and I was glad. I wanted that for a couple of reasons that I’m guessing you can guess very easily. I didn’t want discrimination because of voice or tone across both, English as a first language, but also other kinds of writing that comes out. I didn’t want people to spend all their energy on this—as librarians we sometimes are wont to do that. “Is the Oxford comma here or not?” That’s on me [the editor] or that’s on actually Taylor & Francis [the publisher] folks. They [the publisher] did that level of things. So don’t spend all your energy there. What your energy is for is: does this fit in our conversation? Have the conversation.
Emily: Fit. It’s interesting that you use that word. Okay, so can you unpack that a little bit?
So, the particular journal has a scope. Not everything fits in that scope and so defining that scope is a changing conversation. And so the particular journal, the Journal of Web Librarianship, [they are involved in a changing conversation around:] what does web librarianship even mean? I mean what is that?
Emily: It’s everything we do now.
So then saying is it everything we do or is it a particular kind of thing we do? And what we do changes over time so where is that “fit” and where are we having that boundary? Because it’s shifting and here we are in 2020 and here it is still web librarianship? So, it’s a conversation to have about fit and so I did what editors typically do – they review it [an article submission] first and do a cursory check to see if the article matches the scope. So I can have some of those boundaries set for sure, and I can know this is like 100 miles from fit. But [it’s different if it is] 10 miles from fit and maybe our boundary should go out 10 miles. That I wanted to have other input on it.
Emily: Okay, that makes sense. I feel like there have been articles about they don’t “fit” in our workplace with a hiring things so it’s code for white supremacy. I just wanted to unpack that a little bit more.
Right. And it means there’s a community line and “there is a community line” is my understanding of the white supremacy version of fit too. To me fit still can have a purpose, but yes, if you don’t unpack it then you haven’t defined my meaning.
Emily: Did you have any particular story or anecdote that came to mind for you when you were thinking about your experiences?
I guess maybe two and I was going to say – I think they’re short and now you know that’s a lie. None of them – I don’t say anything short. So the first one I’ll [share] was on understanding that a rejection is not the end of the day. That’s something I would have learned from my plant sciences advisor. You get rejected by one journal, that’s nothing on you. You just move along to the next one. You take what feedback was helpful. Perhaps it wasn’t within the scope. Who knows. It could be any number of things but you move along and you’re going to get that thing published. It’s the outcome. I don’t know if it was my third or fourth article [in librarianship]. Anyway, fairly early on I got rejected and I’ve been rejected more than [that now], and that was my feeling about it. That’s how it works. It doesn’t always, you don’t always get all the things and you move along and I was able to get the article published then at the next place. That was not the experience that many of my colleagues had had, especially if they didn’t have a previous disciplinary experience in being part of a publishing community or an academic community. So having that as something that was more explicitly talked about and made okay that rejection wasn’t like close up shop, you’re never going to get tenure. Your life is over. Now you’re just moving along. That felt like another lack to me in a thing that was missing from maybe how librarians are, probably broader than that academics too – that it’s okay. You just move it along. So that was one [story/observation].
The other one is kind of related, but what I would consider my worst peer review feedback. It was for one of our more notable publications in librarianship, and what irritated me about that experience was the lack of editor interaction there. So I got a revise and resubmit on the first round after waiting like [at least] six months to get that feedback. The feedback was not fantastic, but okay. I took the feedback, made the changes, again waiting for forever, and it comes back with another revise and resubmit with even less substance to it and no mediation by the editor in either of those to say “it looks like you’re really just missing this one thing” or “it looks like you’ve failed to do that certain thing.” Nothing. And just kind of spinning it over and over again in this revise and resubmit cycle. And that was frustrating, especially because I was already an editor myself at that point and the quality of the feedback given on the second one would have been a conditional accept in my view, not a revise and resubmit. So it felt like there was just some laziness, over work, inattention. I don’t know what it was. And so I feel in our profession that if we’re not going to have a training system or this clear something – that it is on editors to take on some of that role and I felt that especially strongly at the time as an editor. That was puzzling to me.
Emily: Did you withdraw?
Totally. I withdrew.
Emily: Did you publish somewhere else?
Yes, and the editor at [the second place I submitted to] was like, “I have been an editor for five years. This is the first article that I’ve never had to give any feedback on. Neither reviewers had anything to say in terms of changes, blah, blah,” which isn’t so much to toot my own horn, because I had made changes based on that previous feedback so it had gotten feedback already. But it wasn’t very different at all from what I had resubmitted the second time there [at the previous journal]. I was like, “Well, exactly.”
Emily: What is your speculation of what happened at that journal where you did get this R&R twice?
I think the editor was kind of checked out.
Emily: Or swimming with submissions.
I’m sure that was true, yes. And that journal would have gotten many submissions.
Emily: Right. I think, too, the labor—again, I haven’t been an editor of a proprietary journal. I’ve only ever been on the editorial board and edited something that I invented with friends, so just take my comments with a grain of salt—but I would assume the labor that I’ve always put forth toward editing and things like that, that’s a labor of love. Sure, in a tenure-related position there is some recognition for that, but you just really need to put it on your CV and have a few examples of the quality and impact to point to. So where is the accountability in actually doing a really good job? And if something happens in your life like you’re splitting up with your partner or if you have a death in the family or if there’s a pandemic or you have a mental health crisis or anything like that, there’s no yeah – so there might be a flaw in the system. That’s very generous—maybe the editor had something happening and because the labor is donated a lot of times. What do you do?
Yeah, I know. That was my every evening for five years. That’s not true. That’s the other irritating thing about editing: it wasn’t consistent. I realized when I had interviewed for the role and asked the question of the previous editor “how many hours a week does this take?” And she sort of hemmed and hawed and I was like, “How can she not know?” And then as soon as I started I was like, “Ah, silly, silly girl. It just comes and goes and you can’t predict when everybody is going to submit five things at once.” Yes, it is a ton of work and nobody sees and nobody knows. This particular editor at the other journal – somebody sees and somebody knows, but yes, your general statements were all true.
Emily: If you were in charge of the peer review world in LIS what would be the first couple of things you would do to improve it?
Yeah, I’d have somebody shadow. I mean I’m pretty consistent with my apprenticing thing. I’d have somebody shadow, somebody else who had been identified as a strong peer reviewer, give them some examples of what was helpful over several ranges of article types, but I think practice is the only way that most things get better, so practice and then feedback and standardizing that as a thing, not as a “you’re in trouble because you’re getting feedback” or whatever, but just having a cycle there of practice and feedback, try it again and then you do the same for the next person in line and then demonstrate for them.
Emily: It’s really interesting that you said when we get feedback we feel like we’re in trouble. But feedback doesn’t mean you’re bad. But a lot of us have been taught or socialized that if we get feedback we’ve done bad and there’s shame associated with it.
And our ears close.
Emily: Yeah. All the feelings and like where is that coming from? Is that American? Is it whiteness? I guess I’m seeing a lot of this white supremacy and socialization. I mean I think that’s where we are culturally right now just with the grief of all of these murdered Black men mostly, some Black women. I think you hit it on the head, this, “I’m bad.”
Yeah, and the quick leap from my work is bad to I’m bad is amazingly fast. And it’s not anybody saying your work was bad. It’s just like, here are some other ideas. I was reading “White Fragility” earlier this winter. What I took away from her was that we need to do better with getting feedback about being racist. That’s kind of the core of what I took away. And where my brain stopped – and she gives multiple examples along the way. Where my brain stopped was like, “when have you seen anybody get feedback and then take productive action on it?” because it was just exactly what you’re saying. You give feedback about how you clean the sink, about how you did the whatever and people are up in arms about when you should have the door open or not.” And not to minimize the racism aspect, but I was like it’s not that it’s not about racism, but people aren’t taking any feedback well, so what will be the leap then that all of a sudden this will be the one thing they take feedback well on. Like, no. I’ve been wondering the same thing just culturally like what is the deal there. And so I was reading it when I was in Europe and then, of course, the world explodes after that. I’ve thought about collectivism and how that all plays out as well. And so you ask me whether it’s a U.S. thing. I think that it is somewhat of a U.S. thing. It’s not only U.S. but we’re such individuals both in taking everything on ourselves but also then everything is for ourselves. I don’t know.
Emily: So it’s like that kind of bootstraps mythology, individualism. This area, this fence around my yard, this is my property. And capitalism is part of that, too, I think. The U.S. capitalism. Lovely.