Stories of open began 3 years ago, when I sought to expand my research on open peer review. I was looking for a more involved qualitative research project that would gather and share personal experience narratives about peer review and open peer review in Library and Information Science.
As such I began to codify for myself a research project for an upcoming sabbatical. My aim with Stories of Open was always to gather and share personal experience stories. With an accepted book proposal, IRB approval, as well as a forthcoming sabbatical, I began to gather stories in the form of interviews. These stories, and their analysis using narrative inquiry methods, are forthcoming by ACRL Press.
But that is not enough. Everyone has a story to share. According to educational researcher Jeong-Hee Kim, narrative research’s purpose is to “… invite readers to a sphere of possible contact with a developing, incomplete and evolving situation, allowing them to re-think and re-evaluate their own views, prejudices, and experiences” (p. 235). Kim, Jeong-Hee. Understanding Narrative Inquiry. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2016.
I am continuing to conduct interviews. My sincere hope is that I am able to share the transcripts of those interviews–our colleagues’ stories–on this website. The stories won’t be heavily analyzed, and the transcripts won’t be heavily edited. They’ll be offered in readable and digestible form.
My hope is that reading these stories inspires you to share your own, either here or with a colleague. My hope is that reading these stories makes you think about how our community can work to improve peer review. And my sincere hope is that the changes we collectively make to peer review will make it more just, more equitable, more inclusive, and our literature more diverse.
Please contact me if you would like to share your story or open or your experiences with peer review.
This is the third and final part of my conversation with Brett Bonfield. In the first part, You actually get to talk in real time…, we discussed the personal relationships between editors, authors, and reviewers. In the second part, I think that the structure helped us achieve our aims, Brett reflected more on these personal relationships, particularly in regards to open peer review. In this final part Brett and I discuss what he sees as part of the culture of open and open peer review, and the tension it has with understood social compacts, labor, and how open culture is in tension with the academic rewards system.
Position: Chief Operating Officer of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library
Fun Fact: The most interesting thing Brett ever won was tickets to the Club MTV tour. He couldn’t tell that Milli Vanilli was lip synching.
Emily: I wanted to ask you actually about an experience we had as editors I remember I think you were part of editing this article that came in and we spent so long working with this person to edit it and format it and then they ended up pulling it and publishing it somewhere else. It’s almost like we did so much work to try and get it to be something that was cohesive because it was really all over the place. There was so much good in it, but I think three or four of us actually worked really hard with this author. I don’t know if they got sick of us or all of the feedback or if it was too much work for them to do and they pulled it and they put it somewhere else. And that’s the only time I remember us having that experience. Do you have thoughts about that in the open peer-review process?
I don’t recall them publishing it elsewhere. Part of it is, in open access and in open peer review we don’t in any way take or lay any kind of claim to the—I don’t even like using the term intellectual property—so I think that’s part of it. It’s just built on trust. One of the writers who I most admire, he’s an old-time blogger who stopped blogging years ago, but he also would develop open-source code and he would publish books with open access licenses. And at one point, I guess while he was still blogging, somebody pointed out that someone had taken a book that he had written and had re-published it on Amazon and was selling it and cutting him out of the deal completely. And he blogged about it, and he said that’s just part of the rules of the game. That’s what we signed up for and you hope people won’t do that and you hope that readers understand that my real publisher is over here and if you really want to buy it it’s also available on Amazon or wherever, but I gave it away for free without restriction. And as a coder people take my code all the time and do that. I don’t ask them for money. They might sell that too and I just wouldn’t know and that’s what we signed up for. That’s part of the rules and I don’t really have an issue with it. They’re only following the rules. They’re not breaking the rules in any way. As he wrote, there’s not even an implied contract; there’s nothing there that says they shouldn’t do that.
For Lead Pipe, you have to go back to the question: did we think our ideas ultimately had value and did we want readers to have access to those ideas? And if that’s the case, do we need credit for it? Is it about the journal—the institution that we happen to love and create, but ultimately it’s just an institution—or is it fine if it’s over there in that other institution’s website? I’m okay with that. Again, I would prefer that everybody follows the implied social order, but people have their reasons, and we weren’t doing it for the glory. We had a lot of reasons we did it, but glory wasn’t it.
Emily: And I think it’s hard because even when I think about that experience I do have a little bit of an emotional reaction and it shouldn’t be about my emotions or my reactions; I should be able to put it aside. I think it was just very frustrating and obviously I’m still carrying it with me ten years later, but I think it sticks out for me because it was the only time that happened.
And I think that’s the more important thing to remember. All these people could have done that and could have gone to far more prestigious publications with their work and we wouldn’t have been able to do anything at all about it and they didn’t. And I still remember how occasionally somebody might get a thank you wrong, or they would misspell somebody’s name or leave somebody out, and I kept thinking, “I hope that wasn’t on purpose.” But we would go back to them and they would fix it or they would let us fix it. But I remember moments like that where I thought “oh they’re not doing the thing they’re supposed to do,” even if they’re not obligated to. Like you hope they do. It’s nice that it sticks out as the only one.
Emily: And it’s really interesting that you’re talking about this open source culture, the culture of being like, “well I just want the work out there” and I need to take my ego or take my pride or take everything out of it. But when the people who are publishing because of an academic reward structure that’s not the way it works. It’s based in currency and the currency is your labor and if you can make transparent the labor that you put forward in open reviewing then there is currency for it. So if I were at a point where I could say I heavily edited 20 articles or something like that, which I didn’t do, but to me that would have been a loss of currency when that author went somewhere else and there’s no attribution. Because I am part of an academic rewards structure being an academic librarian in a tenure-related position, I can see where other people might have more problem with it aside from just the emotional frustration. It might also be that kind of transparency of the actual labor.
When you’re doing unpaid labor already to then not even get any credit for it or thanks and to feel like it’s the opposite, I totally get the sting of it. But I think almost all of us ultimately did get things out of it. I mean, it was part of your tenure portfolio, it helped you get a book contract, it helped me be named a Mover and Shaker. It helped Kim with her Mover and Shaker recognition, which, again, all those things have rewards which is really nice, but I don’t think any of us expected anything like that out of it. I remember how much you agonized over whether you could even include it in your CV or your tenure portfolio. It was clear you weren’t sure that it would even be eligible and I think some of us included it also if I’m not mistaken. But again, same thing: I remember you were doing it because you cared. You just wanted good work out there. There was no sense that we were going to get anything out of it. I think open peer review has come a lot farther than that now and so because it’s a lot more standard people do expect that there’s more of an economic benefit or a reputational benefit.
Emily: I wanted to ask you your perspective as somebody who you had some experience in academic libraries right at the beginning of your librarian career but you’ve pivoted and you’ve come into public librarianship and you’ve become officially on paper a leader. And the reason I say that is because leadership but where your job description is officially as a director or a manager kind of higher up in administration, where do you see these values or do you see a role for open peer review in a very different kind of professional setting than academic librarianship?
I can say that in public libraries there’s very, very little incentive to publish and I think we do see that there’s many, many fewer people who work in public libraries that are actively doing scholarly publishing. But I don’t think that Lead Pipe, for instance, is limited in terms of its readership to academic librarians even though there’s a greater incentive for academic librarians to write in it. I suspect that the public librarians tend to skip the ones that are solely about academic libraries or at least give them a little bit less of a reading. But people bring up Fobazi’s article [Vocational Awe and Librarianship] all the time in public libraries or Performing Whiteness [Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias], or several of the other pieces that were published by academic librarians and so I think the ones that speak to the profession as a whole have an enormous readership and an enormous influence and some of these are also getting up there in terms of age, but I hear about them regularly and in a good way. It’s changed how we think about ourselves. So yeah, I think there’s a place. I think we [public librarians] tend to be a little bit more practical because we’re not always looking for anything that we have to write in order to meet an obligation, but if there’s a thing that we’re doing that we really care about, we want to share it. A lot of public librarians have come to me and asked about getting into writing or what the steps are that are involved in sharing their ideas with the profession. And I think that the open peer-review model is a lot more appealing to them because, again, they just want to feel good about the article. They don’t want to clear a hurdle, they want to have an experience that feels supportive and will put their best ideas out there.
Emily: I can just imagine a scientist listening to what you’re saying, that you want the writing, editing and publishing process to feel good and I can imagine a scientist like my dad being “this is not about your feelings.”
I actually don’t know that I buy into that. First of all, it’s really science, the hard sciences that have embraced open access far more and I think they also have done a really superb job of building collaboration into the editing process. And in the initial authoring process because there’s usually multitudes of authors. I think that it does feel good to them. I think it does feel collaborative to them, I think they’ve just baked it into a different stage of the process. But I think they’ve also rejected the standard peer-review model with the exception of Nature or Science or a couple of others. With arXiv and PLOS and all these other journals that are total alternative models, I think they do it because it feels good. I think they also do it because they’re annoyed with how long the traditional peer-review process tends to take. I think they think it’s really stupid—and they’re right—that it takes a year [try more like 2 or 3!] to publish something and share it with your colleagues. It treats the authors like adults. It says “I’m going to put something out there that’s good” and I’m going to work with other people until it’s good enough to share and they’re going to judge me on the merits of it. And I think that’s really valuable and undoes a bit of the patriarchy. I mean it’s not a perfectly level playing field because, again, you still need access to certain resources in order to publish these things, but as long as you have access to relatively minimal resources you can put it up there in the same place everybody else is putting it out there and it’s going to be evaluated on its merits, which is certainly leveling relative to trying to get into Science or Nature where the institution you’re part of is going to play an enormous part in whether or not it gets accepted, and factors in all these other things that shouldn’t necessarily be factors. Again, Nature and Science are awesome, but they’re kind of at an extreme end and they do have issues.
Emily: Do you have any other anecdotes that are coming to mind for you? Specific things that have stuck with you?
I worked with newer authors on a piece that was about all the other things you could do to collect data aside from just surveys. And we brought in the editor from – she was a librarian, but she had also been the editor-in-chief for some years of Evidence-Based Librarianship and Practice. And it was great to see her patiently bring them along. I mean, they were really excited, they had gone through as a cohort in a training in California [possibly IRDL?] and so they wanted to share the best of this training with Lead Pipe and they were really excited about the topic, but in some places they were skipping steps, and in some places they were getting things slightly wrong, and the patience she demonstrated as they went through repeated iterations over a fairly short time period, it was under a week, but it was just like she so clearly knew what they were trying to say and wasn’t going to say it for them but wasn’t going to let them get away with not saying it clearly and accurately. I think that was a wonderful mix of what it means to be a writer but also what it means to be a scientist and what it means to help other people think more scientifically as readers as well as a group of writers. And they were so earnest, they took her feedback well, so it took both sides trying to make this article better and it was very much their article. She wasn’t telling them what to say, she was just saying, “I think this isn’t really clear. I think you need to tighten this up. I’m not sure what you mean by this piece,” — just little comments here and there. That one really stuck with me. I was their internal editor and she was the external editor.
Emily: I like it when I hear those stories of real skill in letting people’s voices still be their own because I’ve heard many stories where in the review process you’re being asked to perform some other voice. People are mad that you’re using first person, which is one of my pet peeves, or people don’t like your writing style essentially. It’s like your writing style doesn’t sound important or elitist or academic and it’s like, well, that’s kind of the point—to be able to be talking about research but to have it be much more approachable. So I find it really interesting that that’s what you’re highlighting with open review, which has been my experience, too. But I think that’s maybe, at least in our profession, one of the distinguishing things. Maybe it’s we’re able to strip away that performative aspect of peer review in that your writing should look like this, but nobody has ever articulated what the “should” is until you’re being rejected or until you’re receiving criticism for it, when what they want is just for you to perform academically, like putting on a costume or a mask. And that to me comes back to thinking about particularly academia, and I feel like in academic writing we can frequently be asked to perform male whiteness and so when we do open review and we make room for people to have their own style and voice but still get across the ideas.
I touched on this, and I think you’ve touched on it, too. If the hurdle is 42 inches high in the standard peer-review process, people are going to aim for the academic equivalent of 43 inches. They going to clear it just enough and they’re going to do it the exact same way every single time with the exact same voice and tell themselves, “okay this is what I need to do.” And, yes, with an open peer-review process we’re going to have a certain threshold that you’ve got to clear or we’re not going to approve it for publication, but we’re going to try to help you jump as high as your ideas in the piece will take you and, ideally, we’re going to help you do it looking like yourself. Many of the writers we worked with were grateful for what we brought out in them and for the experience itself, even some of the writers who really struggled along the way. And I certainly was grateful to the editors and reviewers who made my pieces far, far better than they would have been—and especially the ones who dug in. Again, some of them were just like, “yeah that seems fine, you might want to change this or this” and I was grateful that they read it and they put some thought into it, but it was the ones who pushed me that I appreciated the most.
I actually went through and read basically every article in every open access journal that was in libraries a couple of years in a row. The Lead Pipe editors would list our favorite articles of the year and most of those were not open peer-review publications, and most of the articles were just terrible. In many journals I couldn’t even find anything I liked for the entire year because you couldn’t even tell which journal you were reading, you could barely even tell what they were writing about, there was just so much sameness to it. The ones where the editors engaged with the writers — you could always tell, and it just brought out a spark. So even though they weren’t Lead Pipe and they weren’t blowing stuff up, you could tell the few that did actually engage with writers, like Code4Lib. You could just tell that they were having some fun with it, that it was an enjoyable process, that there was passion in it for them.
Emily: I think my experience on the editorial board and writing for Lead Pipe as often as we were writing really kind of ruined my expectations for what it was like after that. And I think that’s part of why I’m post tenure going the route of well I wrote a book instead of pursuing articles. But also why right now I’m going outside of the norm of traditional scholarship, working around IRB to publish these stories. I’m just going to do some basic analysis and cleaning up and re-organizing and call it good because I can. The robustness of an open peer-review process was incredible for me to experience and it’s always made my writing so much better and I’ve just been very disappointed by opaque review processes. Just so disappointed.
I’ve done writing before and after and, yeah, it just wasn’t nearly as much fun. It didn’t make me want to go back and do it. At some point people were talking to me about writing a book and I asked them about the process and I was just like — this doesn’t sound like a thing I want to do. I mean, I would like to write a book at some point, but the way they were talking about it I—I don’t want to just give you a manuscript and then you go do something with it. I want to engage. I want it to be fun.
In this second part of Brett’s story, we continue to unpack this relationship theme, but dive into thinking about power structures. Admittedly, I am often not as optimistic as Brett is, but I appreciate his optimism and idealism, partially because they are somewhat infectious and can challenge my own views. We were speaking in August of 2020. My city, Portland, had nightly police riots against Black Lives Matters protestors, and downtown was filled with tear gas. Sometimes the Proud Boys would show up and protestors would witness difference police treatment of these avowed white supremacists and Black Lives Matter protestors. When protests moved into residential neighborhoods—often the historically Black neighborhood—people were choking from tear gas in their own homes. I share this to frame what was in my conscience and the context of our conversation.
Position: Chief Operating Officer of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library
Fun Fact: Brett has “won” NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) twice. He says you wouldn’t want to read either of his novels.
Emily: The other thing I was thinking about when you were mentioning the word relationship is that inherent in relationship is power and privilege and particularly right we’re starting as a society to look a lot more critically at racism, systemic racism and white supremacy. So, in light of that but also in light of the person who I know you are who has always cared about anti-racism, who has always been a feminist, and intersectional feminist—I’m wondering if in this development of relationships how do power and privilege get reproduced so that we might still be engaging in a dominant culture or a dominant paradigm and in what way could that relationship get in the way?
I think a lot of what society has been trying to overcome by setting up certain rules has been to try to undermine the cycles of racism and sexism and other factors that have been part of American society for as long as there’s been—well before there was a United States—as soon as we invaded what’s now the United States. I think everybody knows the Malcolm Gladwell anecdote about the idea of occluding views when auditioning musicians. As soon as you put up the curtain more women get hired. So I think that that is really important to be aware of, but at the same time I’m not sure that the remedies that we’ve come up with have fulfilled the promise as well as we would like. I’ve been an external reviewer for job interviews at an urban library, not Cincinnati, but an urban library. What the administration and the union had come up with was meant to pull biases out of the process and it was just awful. It was obvious that it was just reinforcing biases. I don’t think anybody had bad intentions in coming up with the process, but it wasn’t actually resulting in what anybody wanted either; neither the union nor the administration was happy with the outcome of the process. I appreciate the impulses behind randomized control trials or artificial intelligence, because it would be useful if it worked. But that’s the thing we keep seeing, randomized controlled trials often times just end up reinforcing power structures. Artificial intelligence often times reinforces power structures. The algorithm that judges are supposed to use in deciding cases—so all these things that theoretically are unbiased often just reinforce power structures and in a way that nobody is actually trying to do. I don’t believe that that’s the intention behind – I think it’s a bug in the AI, I hope that it’s a bug in the judicial system that people are trying to work through. Or take standardized tests or all these other things that are supposed to be leveling the playing field and just do the opposite. I don’t believe that what I’m seeing in traditional editorial review seems to be undoing the power structures. What I’m seeing in open peer review seems to be doing a much better job of it. And I think it’s because it gives a lot more agency to the authors and, frankly, to the editors, too, to be able to say this is the world as we want it to function, and these are the beliefs that we have, and these are the power structures we want to undermine. And it gives you, again, the ability to be an adult and ability to have agency and the ability to have conversations and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that In the Library with the Lead Pipe has become one of the leading voices for anti-racism, feminism, all the values that we care about in the profession. And the six people who founded it were pretty demographically similar [we are all white], but we came up with a structure that worked pretty well. We had beliefs that we cared an awful lot about, and we worked toward creating something that would actually give voice to what we cared about. I don’t think that’s any kind of coincidence. I think that the structure helped to achieve our aims.
Emily: Thinking about that word relationship and like having a relationship either as friends or editors or something that’s a little bit deeper than a relationship you have with AI or with a journal and thinking about bias is that when you’re in relationship you can have a conversation like this and say what are we missing or what do we need to be critical of and we can develop that together and we can try and think together about how we might together be reinforcing white supremacy or reinforcing something we don’t want to be reinforcing and then hopefully work to dismantle it a little bit. That’s what I see as a difference.
Yeah. You’ve just said it a lot more succinctly than I did.
Emily: Maybe there’s a reason I asked you to cut three paragraphs Brett.
You knew what the questions were in advance. You got a chance to pare down your thoughts.
Emily: I’ve been having many conversations about this. I have practice.
Yeah. You have your bullets worked out. I’m still editing on the fly.
Emily: I think one of the things that’s been so fascinating about these conversations for me at least is being able to have them in this time when we’re all locked in our houses and forgetting what day it is and still wearing their yoga clothes and like did I shower today or do I even need to shower? But then to be able to come and have these conversations and maybe escape a little bit of the world but also incorporate everything that’s wrong with the world into our conversation I find really fulfilling personally. Anyway, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about, especially when it comes to open peer review, what do you think peer review should do and what should it be for? Why are we even doing this thing that we call peer review?
I think there are a lot of people with a lot of really good ideas and I think the way to help other people find those ideas is to work in partnership with people who will challenge you and support you to make sure that the idea really is new and that it’s being presented clearly and that it’s being presented in a way that welcomes the reader to engage with the ideas. I think there’s so much noise, and finding the signal can be really challenging. I think that review can make that signal a little bit brighter and clearer and help it find its audience.
This is the first of three posts telling Brett Bonfield’s story. Because Brett is a personal friend, our conversation is more nuanced and discusses our work together as authors and editors. We talked in August of 2020. It was hot in Portland, and since I had not gone to ALA Annual the previous year and now it was the pandemic, Brett and I hadn’t connected in quite a while. Let’s learn more about Brett, and from his perspective as a public librarian, thinker, and human.
Position: Chief Operating Officer of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library
Fun Fact: Brett was in the 2012 Men of the Stacks calendar (which raised money for the It Gets Better Project).
Brett is a friend of mine. I have known him since 2008 when he was one of the driving forces behind starting In the Library with the Lead Pipe. We work well together, and he has been a conference roommate of mine for many years. I’ve incorporated a few of his and his spouse’s sayings into my life, namely: there need to be as many cats in a house as there are human hands. I could not agree more.
In any case, Brett is a positive and optimistic human being. He cares deeply about improving the world and is excited by the possibilities of innovation and imagination and creativity. He came to librarianship as a second career after one in nonprofit organizations and grant writing, and is currently the Chief Operating Officer at the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library.
When we were working to develop In the Library with the Lead Pipe, an independent, open access, and openly peer-reviewed journal, one of the things that I noticed and appreciated about Brett was his deep knowledge and appreciation for open. Open source, etc. Together we, along with the other 4 founding members, formulated our version of open peer review for it. Brett told me the only experience he has had authoring, editing, and refereeing openly reviewed works has been at Lead Pipe. As such, most of our conversation focuses on Brett’s thinking around open and our collaborative reflection back on what we did at the years we founded and served on the Editorial Board of the journal. We both served for approximately 7 years. I’ve attempted to take as much of myself out of this interview transcript as possible, but being that I am a player in Brett’s story I do appear more than in others, and our back and forth is germane to Brett’s story.
In this first part Brett reflects on relationships and their importance in peer review.
Emily: what made you feel like open peer review is something I want to talk about?
I’m passionate about open peer review. I think there are enormous problems with the way that peer review is typically done — and we can probably talk about that later I don’t know if that’s necessarily the point of this — but I think open peer review is just a really generative process. I think the articles and other publications that come out of open peer review are more interesting to me as a reader and the process for me as either the author or the editor or reviewer is also significantly more valuable and I would love for more people to have that experience.
Emily: So, when you say more interesting as a reader is it just the knowledge that it went through an open peer review process or is there something extra that you’re looking for?
I think they tend to be a lot more readable. Because I think there’s a collaboration involved in the review process. So much of the standard peer review process tends to be binary or it tends to be yay or nay and I think the kind of articles that therefore make it through the review process tend to have a great deal of sameness and take fewer risks and tend to be very defensive almost, very CYA [cover your ass] and tend to just lack the kind of creative spark and risk-taking that you can take in terms of your thought processes or your narrative when you actually know who your reviewer is and you can have a conversation.
Emily: So, was there any particular anecdote or story that you have in mind when it comes to peer review whether closed or open or in between that you feel like you want to share?
Just so you know, the story I’m going to tell isn’t so much about my own privacy, it’s about yours.
I’m trying to remember the first article of mine that you edited. I think it was you and Kim. And you just pissed me off and I really was like, “what is she even talking about?” I had written this snarky response and I was like, “well that’s too snarky,” and then I wrote one that was less snarky and then I still didn’t send that one because it was still too snarky. I forget what it was you asked and then I went back, eventually, having sent something that probably was still overly snarky, and looked at your comment and I was like, “She’s right. She’s totally right. I need to just completely delete my first three paragraphs that I’m so in love with that I worked so hard on.” Because they weren’t actually getting me any closer to the point I’m trying to make, they’re just making it longer.
Emily: I’m sorry. Was I at least kind about it?
I hope it was a good story. It was a story about personal growth for me as a writer. Yeah. You were kind about it. Like you asked a really open-ended question that made me think there was less behind it than there was. And again, I hadn’t really gotten to know you yet. Kim brought you on — we have never met in person by that point. So, I wasn’t even particularly nice about it, and I think it’s somewhere in there that we also got into comments within the blog, back when we were still both posting comments, and I think during the midst of my being annoyed with you for making whatever smart comment, I posted something in the blog where afterward I was like, “Oh that wasn’t really nice. I wish I didn’t hit post on that one.” Like you had asked a question and I posted a link to answer it or something like that kind of a thing. It wasn’t super aggressive, but it wasn’t how I like to be either. It was just really useful to have that idea that it wasn’t some nameless faceless editor and it wasn’t like I couldn’t follow up with you about it. Again, it was you saying “I don’t see what you’re trying to do here” and me having to spend a few days going… “Right, actually that’s not accomplishing anything. I don’t know why I wrote that at all.” You almost always have to edit out your opening paragraph. That’s what good writers do. But it was just a really useful thing and it really stuck with me. I was cautious about bringing you on as a reviewer for some of my earlier work until I got a better sense of how you worked and what you were looking for in me as a writer and then I tended to bring you in on the ones I cared most about toward the end, the ones where I really spent a lot of time — you became one of my go-to’s. So, again, to have a relationship with your reviewer and your editors, you just don’t get that when you don’t know who your reviewer even is, and in theory they don’t know who you are, but of course, you know exactly who, but anyway, I don’t want to go too far into that. That’s my story as a writer.
As a reviewer, honestly just getting a chance to recruit so many writers that I admired, oftentimes from outside of libraries and then to get to bring them toward what our readers wanted. It wasn’t that they weren’t writing really, really well, I mean Ann Helen Peterson is still one of my role models and a superstar. She’s amazing. I got to recruit her and edit her. David Morris, who is this academic writer but hadn’t written about libraries before but his wife as it turned out was a librarian — his deceased wife — and he wrote his article as an homage to her. Just the chance to have that relationship and to be in conversation with them about what it was that we wanted to accomplish as a journal, what we hoped their piece might actually accomplish. It just really is incredibly satisfying. And to be open peer review as opposed to just, “I’m your editor,” I think it’s a very different They take it seriously and they take it differently and their questions are different. They’re not being journalists in that moment, they’re writing a more scholarly, well researched document to share.
Emily: Can I go back to the story where I made you mad and then circle back to this? I want to reflect a little bit that I don’t remember this at all. And I think it goes to show that the reason I asked if I was kind is because that was, more than ten years ago.
I think so. Yeah. I think it was in 2008, probably 2008 or 2009.
Emily: So, I guess I feel like I felt – in reflecting back I feel like I was so young and naïve and idealistic, didn’t really know what the hell I was doing and I feel like all the experiences that I’ve had since then have made me a much more thoughtful person when it comes to giving feedback so that’s why I asked that. And to hear that I guess I wonder or maybe it’s me internalizing feedback I’ve gotten from people that I’m “too East Coast” or that I’m too direct or I’m too just like say it like it is. To have that feedback that even in open peer review like feelings do get hurt and so it’s just interesting to hear you talking about that and it’s an opportunity for me to reflect on my own personal growth with being able to be reflective about how I interact with people and give feedback and then feeling like at that time I was probably a lot more thoughtless than I am now.
Just to be clear where I was coming from. First of all I am East Coast; I was in New Jersey at the time—you can’t get more East Coast—and I had been a writer at the University of Pennsylvania development office working with writers who were my parents’ age. I had put in five years doing that. I have the thickest skin so nothing affects me personally, but it wasn’t even about that. My feelings weren’t hurt, I was just like, “She just doesn’t get it. Like clearly if she were reading this she would have gotten it and she would see the brilliance of it.” It wasn’t that I thought “I’m so great” it was just like, “Oh, this is a really great, nuanced point that I have made here and you’re like, I don’t really see what you’re saying,” which I viewed not as rude but just —well, clearly she needs to read this again. No, you didn’t. You read it and you were right. You were spot on. It just didn’t really say anything. There was a whole lot of preamble that wasn’t necessary. There was nothing wrong with the feedback you gave, there was nothing wrong with the way you presented it, it was just more like, “Who did Kim bring in?”
Emily: To hear you say that it made you really cautious about asking for my feedback is really interesting to me because that could be a negative for open peer review if you think about it. If somebody had a negative experience with someone, or an emotional experience, or a reactive experience, I mean whatever that reaction is positive or negative. Because if there’s a veil of opacity and somebody says something that just rubs you the wrong way, whether or not they should have said it, you don’t know who that person is and so you’re not carrying around “that Emily I won’t ask her for advice again until I trust her more” or whatever it was.
Well, I think I probably pigeonholed you as an editor. I mostly went to Hilary initially just because we had a good relationship and then as our [Brett and Emily’s] relationship developed, I started to get a feeling for who would do different things with different pieces. Again, I think that’s the other aspect of it. It gives the author a certain amount of responsibility and we always said it. When authors would ask who should be the external reviewer, we would say pick somebody who’s going to be hard on you. Don’t just pick somebody who is going to be “yeah that’s great,” you pick the person that’s going to make it a better piece. And I think it was figuring out who would be hard on me in a way that I felt would truly bring out the best in me. So, it wasn’t that I didn’t respect the outcome, it was that you were an unknown. I didn’t know what to expect. And as I started to read more of your articles, and we started to work more together I got more and more of the sense of who you were and which pieces to bring to you. Again, I think that’s, treating the author as an adult. Your only goal is to produce a really good piece and so it’s up to you to have a relationship with somebody who is going to bring that out. Standard peer review can be sort of infantilizing. I mean you have so little control; you just send it off into the void and then eventually you get some comments from somebody who in theory doesn’t know who you are and you don’t know who they are and you can’t have a conversation. That’s treating adult scholars like children. It just seems really foolish to me. Yes, everybody has biases and it’s really important to get past biases, but again, I think an open peer review process can account for that.
Emily: You have been mentioning the word relationship probably three or four times in this conversation both in your discussion of our relationship when I was editing your work so when you were an author but also when you were developing relationships with other people as an editor. So, how do you see that word different in closed peer review?
I think the thing that people who defend closed peer review, who defend pay-walled journals, who sometimes even defend the kind of standard classic tenure process, they’ll talk about the importance of having a relationship with a journal. And so you want to put your best work into this journal and develop a relationship with that journal so they’ll continue publishing your work there. I don’t think you can have a relationship with a journal. First of all, the people at the journal change and second of all they’re putting walls between you and your readers, walls between you and your editors, there’s barriers to having an actual human relationship with anybody involved in the process with the possible exception of those that pay editors. Sometimes they’re very talented and sometimes they’re really good at cultivating authors. I think humans can overcome a lot of barriers. But, again, I think when you’re talking about an open peer review process, I think that’s the kind of relationship that we typically mean when we use the word relationship. It’s an actual collegial or professional or even personal interaction and relationship that you’ve developed. You get to have conversation in the way that we actually mean conversation. You actually get to talk in real time, or with slight asynchrony between email or comments in a document or whatever. I think better things come of that.
This post is the third and final in a series telling Debbie’s story. The first part, Clear about process, discusses two of Debbie’s recent experiences submitting journal articles. The second part, It has to be about the material, delves further in depth into Debbie’s thoughts about why we peer review. In this third and final part of Debbie’s story, we explore her thoughts on open peer review, and explore what Debbie thinks would be a good approach to training for early career professionals or those inexperienced in peer review. We also explore together critical approaches to peer review and discuss what’s happening in our communities in regards to critical reflection about power, research, and reviewing.
Fun Fact: Debbie recently got her first electric bicycle, which she named Silver (it’s a RadRunner Plus).
Emily: I wanted to explore open peer review a little bit with you. Open peer review can be any number of things. There have been attempts to define it but there’s not really one agreed upon way that people define it. Essentially an all too basic definition is that open peer review is when a reviewer and an author can know who one another are. At a more robust implementation it could be that there’s actual engagement or back and forth in conversation between reviewers and authors. Hearing that and realizing that this might be the first time you’ve thought about it, do you have any reactions or thoughts about challenges with that or positives of something that would enable that?
I think that it could be very positive. I think it would definitely help the growth of the individual who’s writing, who maybe is new to research or new to publishing. It reminds me of the experience that you have with a supervisor—and my supervisors were very good. But I know that there were people who had supervisors who were very bad and not helpful; who were not able to communicate what their vision is very effectively and not able to provide helpful feedback. It does take two, so whatever the reviewer or whatever your supervisor is telling you, you have to understand and reflect that back to them so you are both clear about what you are talking about. It can be challenging depending on the individuals. When you know who they are it can feel hurtful if you are someone who’s inexperienced and your writing [you think] this represents you—which it doesn’t—but it can be hard to take feedback. Sometimes it’s easier when it’s behind that anonymity shield, but I think as we’re trying to learn and engage in that scholarly conversation it makes sense. It’s kind of like having a mentor or a supervisor. “Yes, I see that you’ve written or you’ve researched on this interesting topic. In order to make this a really successful paper for publication here are some of the things that you need to do.” I think that is really valuable. That is the whole point so again, it depends on the people and how they would approach it. You would think that the person who’s submitting a paper would necessarily have to understand that they have to be open to feedback. The weirdest thing would be you get something back and it’s like oh yeah, it’s fine. It’s like really? There’s nothing?
Emily: Have you had that experience?
Emily: I have.
Doesn’t it feel like, “did you read it?”
Emily: Yeah, it did because when it happened to me it felt like I worked really hard at this, but I know there’s something that can be improved. I just hit my wall. I’ve had that happen a few times and it felt very frustrating to me.
I’ve had it in different contexts so I know it’s like if I wrote a report at work and “oh yeah, that’s fine.” It’s like really? Did you read it? Do you have anything to add? That’s just what I mean if I were being open like you were. You want to improve it. You want it to be critiqued because it’s going to be published.
Emily: I know you had really good experiences going to the ECIL conference and that you had some experiences as a doctoral student. What would your ideal be for folks who aren’t in doctoral programs? How could they learn about the peer review process? What do you think would be the best way for that to happen?
In addition to those two areas I mentioned, I did go to a peer at my own university. She was an AVP who publishes a lot. (She’s not with us anymore.) She wrote a lot of articles. You know what, I just talked to her about what it’s like, what her experiences were. She also reviews. She gave me an example that was very similar to the scenario I had with one of my papers and I thought “oh, okay, well if her experience is similar and here she’s been publishing for 20 years or longer, I don’t feel so bad.” So, talking to someone who does publish, I found it to be quite revealing and really helpful. “So, what kinds of things are you looking at? What’s your experience? How do you navigate it?” And everyone is going to have a different experience so finding more than one person who might act as a mentor even would be ideal. I always hesitate to ask people to read articles, but people do offer so that’s the other side where if someone is willing to read and give it a bit of a critique or give you some feedback before you submit, that’s also a great way to start the process. But again, you don’t always find willing readers.
Emily: Your doctoral work was on critical information literacy. Do you see a connection between critical pedagogy or critical information literacy and peer review?
[long pause] I’m not really sure actually. Because the thing about critical information literacy or critical pedagogy is we’re asking the individual to be bringing themselves wholeheartedly into the learning process. Reaching down into their own experiences and making sense of what we’re talking about if we are providing a bit of a framework or some information. We’re actually having them draw out from themselves. So perhaps if peer review is done effectively it’s kind of triggering that learning experience. I could see it from that perspective, but the other side is it could just simply be like your teacher marking a paper where you’re not having any kind of critical reflection. You’re not bringing anything further to it. You’re correcting grammar or you’re redoing structure. You’re not necessarily having a fulsome conversation about a topic and reflecting on it and arguing your own point of view through the review process necessarily. That’s what you’re doing possibly in the paper itself, but in the review process it might feel entirely one-sided depending on who’s doing the review. Other than that yes, it’s a critique. It’s a critique, but it’s a critique that I don’t know. That someone else is critiquing your work really. So it’s not quite, I don’t think.
Emily: The way that I’ve thought about it is that perhaps it’s not isolated just to that back and forth between the referee and the author. I think I’ve been looking at it critically—about the whole system. One of the questions that we ask in critical information literacy and critical pedagogy is: who has power and who does not have the power? How much power does an editor have? How much power does a referee have? How much power does an author have? And is it an appropriate balance? Particularly in the United States right now with all of the movement towards racial justice and antiracism or thinking about whether—not just the act of peer reviewing, the one-on-one looking at the article—but the whole system suffers from perhaps white supremacy.
In Vancouver the same questioning is happening. You’re absolutely right. Questioning of what’s happening to indigenous people and the incarceration rates and in communities such as Toronto where there is a larger Black population what’s happening with the BIPOC communities. And also in the Maritimes. Yes, the same questions and whose voices are we hearing and whose voices are we not hearing. No one ever stops, right.
Emily: Exactly. And so I’ve been trying to think about the peer-review process, not just the one-on-one or the focus at that small level but at the macro level—whose voices are not there? And for me the question comes back to the culture of higher education—whose voice isn’t present in the culture of higher education or not as present.
The good thing about the blind review is you don’t know the authors’ names, so you don’t have any sense about like, this is where whether women’s voices are being heard or not. You can set that aside because you’re not making assumptions based on a name. That’s a good thing. But depending on how the article is written it can be very clear. I’m talking about my personal experience as a woman. It’s like okay, what kind of bias is the reviewer bringing? So I can certainly see in that sense as you were describing the whole process for peer review yes, we’re not taking a critical approach to publishing. I think we’re probably still in exactly the same situation we have been for a number of years. Maybe things are improving, but you still have those same voices excluded. Either they don’t have the opportunity, or they don’t have the wherewithal to publish. So it goes back to those well, you know, we review everything that comes in, but what if it never gets to the publishers. What if it doesn’t get to the journals? That’s where our fundamental problems still reside. The review process, if everything were done effectively, the editors would be out seeking input. And you know calls go out but it’s not quite the same thing is it? Just getting the call. And then working with people so that they can actually publish. That’s a whole other supportive structure that doesn’t exist.
Emily: This reminds me of my former colleague Bob’s experience. When he started discovering autoethnography as a method and using it he faced some bias from journal editors saying this method isn’t acceptable.
That is really interesting. The only reason why I find it so interesting is because we had a lot of conversation about it at the University of Edinburgh where I was doing my doctorate. So I was at the Moray School of Education so that was the school. Autoethnography was an interesting topic that we examined because we were exploring the different ways we were going to conduct our research. There was a faculty member there who had done her doctorate and her thesis in autoethnography research. So we had a chance to look at that particular form of research and I thought “oh, this will be so excellent.” We looked at examples where it was maybe in Scotland, kind of underprivileged children experiences, articles that were autoethnographic or put together different components of that and how that did very much bring voice to people who are underrepresented. It’s not like Paolo Freire was doing autoethnography, but some of his work with I guess ill-educated peoples could easily lead to that kind of bringing students in to be able to conduct their own and to be able to publish their own story. So that linked to critical literacy itself. I found it really interesting. That’s an area where I’m probably going to look at in the near future.
Emily: Bob and his colleagues were trying to get autoethnography into LIS and it just kept being met with this bias and so that’s another thing that I think about—if you’re thinking about a critical view of our whole peer review system. If an editor isn’t even interested, if that selection bias is introduced, I see that as wielding great power as to what voices or approaches aren’t getting heard.
But we have to start talking about it because again it’s like “oh yeah,” when you talk about these things people go, “oh yeah, I’m sure that’s true.” Unless you’re actually actively talking about it, it’s never going to change. You say implicit often, sometimes explicit bias is really, really important. I totally agree. It is interesting. That’s why I did an Educational Doctorate, because LIS has been very much focused on quantitative and practical research rather than qualitative. In social sciences and the move towards accepting the validity of qualitative research we’ve come a long way in the past several years. The validity of that form of research now is usually accepted, especially when you’re dealing with people. For LIS to still be resistant is a little bit disingenuous. This isn’t a business degree and even if it were you’re still qualitative.
Emily: Yes, this conversation that we’re having comes up a lot for me when I’m talking with folks about qualitative versus quantitative. I flippantly call it our “insecurity problem” in LIS because a lot of us only have masters’ degrees and yet we’re in these faculty positions or we’re academics, we’re teaching and we have to somehow prove that we’re as good as the other faculty. And one way that’s been more historically accepted is to be doing quantitative research.
You look at how the data is collected. You look at the validity of the data and you’re like really. Okay, and then what? You still have to put the story together and that’s the qualitative. That’s what gives meaning to the numbers.
Emily: Absolutely. I believe in stories obviously since I’m asking for people’s stories. Do you have any other thoughts or things that are coming to mind about peer review or your experience or a story that you wanted to share today?
I don’t think I have anything else to share at this point. Like I said, as I teach mostly masters students now and library technicians, it is interesting to work with students and I could see some – I can just see that feedback mechanism that happens when you’re teaching and you’re working with students and how you might take that away and apply that into your research as well. But I don’t think I have anything further other than I look to support anyone that works for me or that is a student of mine to consider research and consider writing and publishing just to, like you say, share their voices and those voices that we’re not hearing. I just hope to be able to support others in their own aspirations. That’s kind of my aim out of all of this. Not that I necessarily will be publishing much more myself in the future. The research itself is the interesting part I think.
This is the second in a series of three presenting Debbie’s story. In the first part, Debbie shared her experiences submitting to a Canadian journal and one international in scope. Both of her experiences were positive, and she felt that the communication and transparency of the journal systems were a part of that.
In this second part of Debbie’s story, she shares a bit about her experiences as a peer reviewer herself and discusses the process she underwent submitting a peer-reviewed book chapter.
Fun Fact: Debbie enjoys going on horse riding holidays in different countries.
I did provide a review in the Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science (CJILS) and it was very helpful to be doing this after having had those most very recent, very different experiences. [The two article submissions discussed in the first part of her story.] It was interesting how the reviewer information was provided. It’s very clear about what they expect the reviewer to be reviewing and how to communicate it, and it was interesting you made that comments and how they can be inappropriate. Yeah, I’m sure they can be. And how they want to be really clear about not stating it’s not up to the reviewer to determine whether or not the article should be published and all of these other parameters. So that was really interesting. In fact, it would have been interesting to look at that even before submitting, because it helps you to think about, “okay, if I were looking at this as a reviewer what would I be looking for.” Even though you know you look at submission requirements– obviously it depends on the topic. It depends how you’ve written the paper, but those edited pieces are an excellent lens to be looking at even when you’re writing a paper I felt. So, that was a really interesting process, too.
Emily: Had you had any training aside from the guidelines that you saw from the journal to be offering a review?
Just subject expertise and really as a higher education teacher and masters and undergrad programs. I took it as those were the qualifications that were appropriate to that extent. Other than that it was the subject expertise.
Emily: But the guidelines were clear enough for you that you felt like you could take that and know what you were doing?
Yes, they were very specific, and I thought that was really helpful.
Emily: You mentioned something about having attended workshops about peer review while you were a doctoral student. Can you tell me more about that? I’m just going to reflect quickly: what I’ve heard from a lot of people that I’ve spoken to is that there’s never been really training or understanding about what the peer-review process looks like as an author, particularly for librarians only in master’s programs who don’t go through doctoral work.
In my program my supervisors did provide a certain amount of information about the peer-review process and specifically they were talking about the need to publish. They wanted us to be publishing and how they looked at our thesis and they said, “well, you can fillet it. I think I see four articles here.” Well, I didn’t have four articles in me. And then really within that context they were talking about that the process, the expectation of whether or not you will actually be accepted, taking the feedback that you receive and doing explicitly what is asked of you. Very similar to the process that you go through with your supervisors when you’re writing your thesis. So that was kind of the lens they put on it. But then a more fulsome workshop I did attend was not within the program but at the European Conference on Information Literacy (ECIL). They had a stream there which was for doctoral students and there was a very specific workshop talking about the process. They had people up there who – they had a journal editor and people who had done peer review to talk about the process and some of what I said earlier about take heart, they’re looking at it.
And the expectations. That was actually a really good session and the audience was all doctoral students so they were able to ask, the other people were a little more advanced with what they were publishing. That was really the extent of my experience. Really those two sets of conversations.
The ECIL was maybe two years ago now, so I don’t really remember all the details, but it certainly made it clear to me what the process was at the time, which I hadn’t necessarily been fully aware of or understanding how it happened. Obviously, my supervisors were advising from their personal experiences, which they had shared as far as submitting and undergoing peer review, and being peer reviewers themselves. So they did talk a little bit about that process. That was closer to when we were finishing up our program and they were encouraging us to think about publishing. But we were still trying to finish our theses so there’s only so much you can think about.
Emily: I think it’s interesting that you did have these opportunities. I’ve heard a lot of people had nothing. Even as a referee you mentioned that you had such clear guidelines. I’ve had so many people tell me “I have no idea what I was supposed to be doing. There were no guidelines” and personally I think that’s when you get into these issues of reviewers being inappropriate or saying things that are inappropriate. I haven’t heard very many stories of that in librarianship at all.
That makes no sense. We’re learning. We’re trying to learn and share in the scholarly conversation so yes; your opinion matters, but it has to be about the material and whether it’s furthering the conversation. And those were the conversations we had. Being recently in a program, you have to lose all of your ego about what you think, whether you write well, whether you’re good at researching, whether you’re communicating your topic appropriately, are you researching the right things. You really have to take the advice from the experts and learn to argue, too.
Emily: What do you think peer review should do or what should it be for? Why are we even doing it?
I do see the value in it because, even if we’re working with others, we do bring a particular lens and we can have blinders on. So I think those points about okay, this is really a North American or American-centric topic. That doesn’t apply to us. Well, that’s not what my research said, so I think the point is that it encourages us to ensure that we are researching effectively, we are communicating effectively, we are adding to the conversation, and that we are testing and evaluating throughout—testing and pushing forward. The whole point is to ensure that we are contributing, and if we’re not addressing the audiences effectively, if we have gaps, that’s really what the reviewers should be pointing out because they bring those expert lenses to this and say “well wait a minute, that’s all fine. What about this? Did you just not think to mention it? Did you miss that in your research?” I think those are the pieces that are more effective. Once published it’ll stand up on the research under its own. Because otherwise it’s back to that “this is my opinion, it’s an opinion piece.” Well, that’s fine but then it has to be taken as such. I find it to be really helpful for developing learning and that’s the learning from the author themselves. Learning from the experts.
Emily: So you see it as a conversation and as a learning opportunity. I wanted to go back a little bit to your experience where you reviewed and then you said you wish you had known what the review guidelines were when you were writing. While you were writing this book chapter, did your experience as a referee influence how you were writing at all or was there a relationship between those two now?
That happened because the book chapter is basically a paper I presented so that was all right when I was I the midst. I think I’d already received my feedback, so I was definitely thinking about that when I wrote the paper and I felt much better that I had created a stronger paper to present at this conference because it was information for professionals and academics from all over Latin America and Mexico and some from the States as well. It certainly improved what I wrote and how I presented it. So that is why I’m curious to know what the reviews will be like because I made sure to take the international perspective and to look for those examples from research very broadly, but that would also speak to the Latin experience. So was there anything – no, but I found something in Spain, so I used that to help me focus on the particular audience and to be really focused on what was the topic of that particular conference. And so I kept thinking about that. I remember even what one of my supervisors said—and this was what I should have remembered before I submitted that other article—was, “well, says who? Yes, you refer here but depending on the type of journal or publication you need to continually reference, even if you’ve referenced it a few lines before. You have to be very specific and back up anytime you’re making a statement.” So it’s exactly what I was doing in my thesis. I used that very much in my process for the writing for the paper that I presented. But I haven’t seen any feedback yet.
Emily: Is writing and publishing part of your job expectation or is it simply an outgrowth of your doctoral program that you’ve continued to do this?
It’s been an outgrowth. We’re not publishing a lot in this province. There are certain people who do but it’s not necessarily even part of the requirement. We’re a teaching university. So, it’s evolving and they have been. Many of them have done mostly conference presentations and they do have a fair bit of PD time like four weeks of PD time. But they’ll have the option of doing research in the future soon or finding grants and doing research. It has not been part of our university historically. Many of the librarians are faculty. I’m not faculty, I’m an administrator. But I think it’s really important to be leading and to encourage it—to lead this understanding within the university that we are all academics, and we are all contributing, and publishing and research are a form of my contribution. Many of my faculty present papers at conferences and do publish, but many do not. I just see it as a way of also modeling both for the people in my library, but at the university at large because my VP of Academics says “congratulations, I saw that you got those articles published and your expertise in your field.” This is a way of also signaling to the rest of the university the library is part of the academic community, that we’re part of our own scholarly conversations and that does overlap with what you are doing. So, those are some of the reasons why I’ve done that. And then it’s been opportunity. It’s not required.
Emily: Is it part of, for example, UBC culture for librarians to be researching and publishing?
I believe but I don’t think everyone. I think they can choose how they wish to do their PD. They may not be officially part of the faculty association. They might have a particular status. Do you know what I mean? Research and non-research. When doing my research there isn’t a lot – I notice that’s the problem. There isn’t a lot published in BC higher ed. No one is really required to do it.
I just don’t think that’s what inspires them. I find there are some librarians who are really engaged in particular topics and they are writing about student engagement or information literacy in particular. I think those are two biggies. Assessment. But there are a lot of librarians who are doing their collections work. They’re interested in teaching. They’ve never been interested in doing research or in publishing. Like I said our librarians actually do a fair bit, but not everyone. But they do other things like they’ll support conferences and they’ll do much more practical types of activities and definitely workshops and sharing information that way. But it is kind of like our teaching faculty at our university. Many of them do research. Most do not. Pedagogy is what they’re interested in.
There’s expectation for professional development activities, but really faculty can choose what it is they wish to do. So, like I said there are always the keen ones and I think that’s great because it’s great for our reputation. It’s great for their, whatever their career plans are as well. We’ll never be that. That is our mandate – teaching, regional. But maybe teaching and learning like the scholarship of teaching and learning. That seems to be of interest to people so I can see evolution specifically in that research area.
This is the first in a series of Debbie Schachter’s story. At the time of this interview, in August 2020, Debbie was the University Librarian at a small teaching university in North Vancouver, BC. Debbie has had a wide range of experience in libraries and beyond, including in the news media and social services. Her library background is in special libraries, public libraries, and academic libraries. Just recently she completed a Doctorate of Education degree from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, which required a thesis (what they call it there), and has been able to publish some of the research she completed as part of that pursuit.
In addition to her current job, Debbie is an adjunct at the UBC Information School where she teaches Management of Information Organizations. She also teaches for a well-respected library technician program at Langara College.
Fun Fact: Debbie recently took up violin again after an almost 40-year hiatus.
In this first part of the series, Debbie discusses two parallel experiences she had undergoing peer review, one in a Canadian journal, and one in an international journal. Because Debbie had attended some workshops and presentations preparing her for what to expect in peer review processes, she felt prepared. Let’s hear more from Debbie.
Emily: Can you tell me a little bit about why you wanted to participate in this interview?
I thought the peer review process was really interesting because while I have written and published, many years ago I used to write a regular management column, information management through the Special Library Association (SLA). It could have been ten years. Anyway, it was a long time ago. And then I contributed to a book chapter on supervision and management for an ALA publication. But I hadn’t been involved in the peer review process, not since university obviously, and then I returned to get the doctorate. Most recently I had two divergent experiences in two very different peer reviewed journals dealing with feedback. I’d already attended a couple of sessions on what your experience might be like when you go to publish. But it can be sobering and it can be challenging, depending on what the reviewers say. I thought it would be helpful just to reiterate what I had been told about; yes, if they’re interested just because you feel strongly about your work, you may feel surprised at the feedback. An outright rejection is one thing, but “you can make this better” is something that you may look at as simply constructive feedback. I thought it would be helpful for my most recent experience doing this.
I identified a couple of journals that would be appropriate for my research topic. It was on critical information literacy teaching within the British Columbia higher ed context. I did a survey and then interviewed a large number of individuals representing the public institutions in this province, and a couple of the journals that were interesting to me were the Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, because I was actually using a number of articles from that in my own literature review. And then the other because I’m a member of IFLA [International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions] and I presented on my research at an IFLA conference in Malaysia and also at the European Conference on Information Literacy in Europe, ECIL. So I had been invited through IFLA to submit to a special edition for the IFLA Journal. I knew that I was writing toward that and then for CJILS I was hoping to have a paper accepted. I submitted to the CJILS and there was quite a long period of time trying to get to the right person. There was a change in editors. While I was waiting I had submitted to the IFLA Journal. That one was a little bit more, should I say, it felt a little more rigorous. It might have been that the articles were different. The CJILS was a very positive and supportive type of process. I felt the feedback was gentle. It pointed out certain things that that would be areas of improvement. The interesting tone of the feedback was very much more supportive than what I did experience through the IFLA Journal, where there were two peer reviewers. There were many comments.
And for someone who doesn’t have experience writing for an international journal in particular—I’d heard this from someone else—there’s quite a bit of detail that is expected as far as the citation and referencing beyond what you might experience in a smaller journal. I was not entirely sure how to craft an appropriate article. Should it be like my thesis? Should it incorporate as much of the citation as I would in my thesis? Initially I hadn’t thought that it should, but clearly it should have because that was the response I received. They provide feedback because they want you to improve, but the experience can also give this sense of “oh, there’s all this work that needs to be done,” or “if I complete this work is it going to be accepted? Is it appropriate?” There wasn’t necessarily a good overall sense that if I completed all of this additional work that it would be accepted and that it was appropriate for the journal. I kind of got the sense that it would be because they were going through this effort, and they hadn’t rejected it outright, but to me it wasn’t entirely clear. So it was about the communication processes. The feedback was, I felt, I believe it was fair, but in some areas it was sort of—and perhaps it was just the tone of one of the reviewers—was “well, I don’t believe that this is true.” That kind of thing. And it was like, “okay, well maybe that’s just they want to see the other citations.”
Also, there can be a sense of what we’re writing about in North America might not be how they perceive certain topics in other countries or on other continents. So I took it with a grain of salt because I had already defended my thesis and to argue certain things, but I think it’s a strong reminder that we’re in a conversation and how people review is not necessarily going to be gentle. You might choose to receive it in a way that you feel is not the most constructive, but the reality is someone is putting effort into the review and asking these questions very honestly. Well, what is the evidence? Yes, I see that but maybe I don’t agree. Maybe you need to follow that up. That simply makes it a better final result. It is interesting that depending on the reviewer how you get such vastly different types of feedback, and that you cannot always predict what you might be anticipating when you submit an article. Again, having them accept it and then for review and edit, that is a very positive experience, but as I said if you’re not experienced it can feel like “oh, well I’m never going to be able to achieve what they’re looking for” or they simply don’t like it or whatever. I think for those who are new to this, they should take encouragement from it and not to feel bad if the first effort wasn’t perfect. And that’s exactly the feedback that I’d received – not personally, but when I went to some workshops at a conference recently, that was exactly what they were saying in those workshops for doctoral students. Don’t worry, you might not be accepted. No one is accepted initially. You’ll be fortunate if you’re accepted into the journal you wish to publish for. I felt for me it was an excellent learning experience. The CJILS was a positive experience, too. There were pieces that I needed to focus on. It was a very different article, so I think that’s why the feedback was quite different and it was more based specifically on my research. Again, I’m not surprised, but it is a comparison for two articles loosely associated how very different they can be perceived and the feedback provided.
Emily: Were both published? They were both ultimately accepted and published?
They both went through. This was that thing about really taking the feedback very literally and doing that; it’s just as when you do a doctoral thesis or master’s thesis. You’re getting feedback from your supervisor. I felt exactly the same way. This was stretching me and this was a learning experience; someone had taken the time to provide that feedback and if that’s what one reader thinks, what are other readers going to think? I was a little shocked by it frankly. You just have to set aside your ego or anything like that and again immerse yourself in the learning experience. I did a little more work in certain areas that they were looking for. For one of the journals I just added to the citations because I felt they wanted to see more and verified. I thought, “am I making this up?” I’m like no, I wasn’t. I verified some of those pieces cited as heavily as I did in my thesis. That kind of thing. Resubmitted and it was accepted with just some small grammatical editing and that kind of thing. And at the same with the other, which was a smaller article about my research, just a few changes, some additions. They were logical items and then it was published. So a very positive experience.
Emily: You mentioned that at CJILS that there was a changeover in the editor at the time. How much of a delay do you remember that introducing?
It could have been a couple of months because I think I probably emailed someone, didn’t get a response. Went back to the site, checked again. Because I’d relied on some Canadian studies in my paper, I thought, “I’m referencing them and I really should be publishing in that journal.” I received some information that there was a new format for the journal. They had a new submission process, so it was really a handoff between people at two different universities and so it wasn’t a huge amount of time, but it was just a coincidence of the timing when I was looking to submit. Other than that most journals have these systems that are really effective now, where you can actually see what’s happening with the process about your submission. I think that was the start of their new system so I really appreciated that. It was really helpful because even if you thought nothing’s happening you could go to the site and check. Oh, it’s under review. Great. Okay.
Emily: Did you notice a difference in the way the editors of the two journals handled your submission and feedback?
I think that they were similar. They were both very neutral, supportive. Clear about process. I think that’s the most important thing—and expectations. Perhaps if I’d been rejected I could have compared different information but they were both accepted so pretty much their processes were similar and they were encouraging me to both submit and then also to be monitoring the article’s the progression through the process in their system. And then the way they responded to the feedback—they provided the full feedback, but they also provided an encapsulation and then the specifics of it, which is really important.
Emily: So there was guidance given to you such as, “pay more attention to reviewer one about this and reviewer two about this” or, “I agree with this,” or that kind of thing?
I think both of them were basically saying that they concurred with the review. They were supportive of what they saw in the reviews and there was an overall message. Overall it looks like this is a valuable submission, blah, blah, blah. That kind of thing. However, there are a number of items so please review the specifics from the review comments. They were both consistent that way. I do recall with both of them that they talked about timelines and process, so they were very clearly managing the process and so I was appreciative of that. My experience was quite different.
For the IFLA Journal they decided to create a special issue on the topic and so that has happened and that’s the only other thing is don’t despair in the length of time. It seems like some of these things take forever and then you don’t know when it’s coming out even when it’s accepted. So that was part of “will we ever find out? What’s the deadline?” And the deadline is so much in advance of the actual publication. I’m part of the IFLA Library Theory and Research section and I did actually present at a conference at the beginning of March. That was my last holiday ever out of the country, due to COVID. And that was also the book chapter, so they’re going to do a peer-review process for that. I already submitted it (and I’m curious to know the result and unfortunately it didn’t happen in time for this conversation). I’m curious to know what that experience would be like. That’s very different. It’s through the Autonomous University in Mexico City, the information school there, and so that might have been interesting to be able to share, but I don’t know anything yet about that.
It’s been quiet around here for summer while I took two months off to drive around the country to visit friends and family I had not seen in years because of the pandemic. But I’m back at it and have plenty more stories to share with you. But before then, ACRL is hosting a webcast for #peerreviewweek21. The theme, Identity in Peer review, takes up a few chapters of Stories of Open, so it’s a perfect fit! (Need to read the OA version of the book? Find it at the bottom of the book’s description on the ALA Store.) While I, of course, think everyone should read the whole book, if you are most interested in identities, I recommend chapters: 4 – Roles of Peer Review; 5 – Dualities and Multiplicities in Peer Review; 9 – I Just Feel Like This Makes Sense to Me.
Opening Peer Review in LIS September 21, 2021 | 1:00-2:00pm CT
What does it mean to peer review in library and information science? What does it mean to be reviewed? How do our professional identities intersect with this vital research and publishing role? And what does it mean when peer review is opened to reveal these identities? In celebration of Peer Review Week 2021, this free webcast with Emily Ford will share insights into peer review in LIS as discussed in Stories of Open: Opening Peer Review through Narrative Inquiry, a newly published book from ACRL.
It is with excitement and a joyful anxiety that I break our regular programming to share this news: Stories of Open: Opening peer review through narrative inquiry is now available for purchase in the ALA Store! (It’s also an OA book, downloadable here.)
This book project is what prompted me to continue to gather and share stories on this website. From the introduction of the book:
I continue to work to edit and publish stories here, apologies for the lull and interruption, but things have been busy!
In this exercise of researching and writing—exploring ways of knowing through narrative of human experience—I have also come to be acquainted with our colleagues who bravely shared their thoughts. We theorized together, and together we explored their (and our collective) emotional experiences. Each and every conversation required folks to be vulnerable and trusting, and in return I have striven to offer you their experiences with loving kindness. This book is as much theirs as it is mine, and as it is yours. In the interest of protecting individual privacy, I have used pseudonyms for each individual mentioned below, with the exception of Stuart, who agreed to openly share their story. Stories from individuals with pseudonyms have been edited to omit personally identifiable information, and when needed, I worked with those individuals to edit their stories to include and exclude information as they felt comfortable. I would like to introduce you to ten incredibly generous and thoughtful individuals. The headings represent the title of each individual’s interpretive narrative.
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.
This post is the second in a series of three comprising Hannah Gascho Rempel’s story. The first post, When you look at a body of literature…, discussed some of Hannah’s current involvement and curiosities about scholarly publishing, stemming from the history of scholarly publishing, to her experiences as an editor.
In this second story part, Hannah unpacks her privilege and successes in scholarly publishing, and discusses limits of LIS education.
Hannah Gascho Rempel
Position: Professor and Science Librarian at Oregon State University Libraries
Fun Fact:Hannah was on sabbatical in the Czech Republic last year and enjoyed doing things like going to soccer matches and people watching while riding on trams and subways (and working).
Emily: You said 30 minutes ago that you were good at publishing. You have a book forthcoming that you’re working on. You have multiple articles. How do you think you got good at it?
I practiced it. I’m a white girl who school was meant for and designed for. I follow the directions. I know how to follow the genre rules and play by those rules and adjust myself accordingly. The system was meant for me.
Emily: How did you learn to serve as a referee?
So I was thinking about that ahead of time and ironically (or just whateverly) I actually have not refereed very many times. I have referred less than five times overall so more of my refereeing came during my [journal] editing days when I was actually the third referee on every single article—sometimes to a more or less degree—but every single article I reviewed. Which isn’t the way it looks on the outside, but at least at that journal that’s how it really happens on the inside. How I learned to do it: some through my first experience publishing back when I was still in horticulture; observing how my advisor—I can’t say that I ever observed her reviewing another article and how she gave that feedback, but I saw the feedback we got from the main article that came out of my thesis work and how she responded and taught me to respond to the feedback. And so [observing] what feedback was valuable and what could easily be dismissed. And so taking that logic then and trying to focus on the kinds of valuable feedback [in my refereeing]. Otherwise in librarianship all of the instances [journals] that I did review in had a [peer reviewer] form to fill out and so that was the guidance that was given there. But more of it, I would say, has come from the feedback I’ve gotten, not just in my plant sciences world but in librarianship, and what I’ve observed as being helpful feedback and then I tried to mimic that myself.
Emily: It sounds like there really wasn’t anything formal. It was just somebody who took an interest to be a good advisor and mentor you. Was that standard in horticulture and plant science?
No, I wouldn’t say so. I wouldn’t say that it was exceptional, that she was the only one, but there were certainly people who would not have had that experience. I would say it was common enough that other professors I’ve interacted with who would be a similar age to me, would have had that experience as well. Whether it was the advisor or a postdoc that you sat next to didn’t matter, but there was definitely some apprenticing sort of approach to it where you saw how somebody else did it, how they responded to feedback or gave feedback themselves, and then you learned that way.
Emily: If you didn’t have that background how would you have learned to do this if you just went to librarianship and not with the masters in plant science?
Yeah, that’s a good question because the closest I guess I can say that I would get is at Oregon State University. We have had a research and writing group that does meet regularly, although less so now, but we also have kind of informally [a network of] people that you know are [good at giving] certain kinds of feedback. So you would go to X person. You were coached early on that you go to X person if you want copy editing feedback. You go to X person if you want structural feedback or deep thoughts kind of feedback. And so I learned more obviously probably from the deep thought sort of feedback givers. There are a couple of people like Janet Webster would be one of those people so you get feedback from them a time or two and then you’re like, “I got it. Every time I should do the methods like this,” instead of whatever other way.
Emily: That’s interesting because it sounds like even though you have this group, whether it’s formal or informal, but it’s been an on-the-job experience. It’s not like in library school you’re learning about this process. As a journal editor do you have any stories of seeing reviews that were just totally out there where you had a reviewer two? How did you manage as the journal editor, the reviews you were seeing and then sending to authors?
Yes, I do know reviewer two. In my experience, I’ll start with – I saw my role as the editor to be a mentor to authors. I understood that in librarianship people haven’t had the training in this. So, when the question always comes up should you have learned X in library school. I have no expectations that anyone should have learned anything in library school. I don’t start with that premise at all. I’m amazed if we come out with anything. [laughs] Okay. I’m being flip; I know that’s not really true. What I mean is that library school represents a snapshot in time of some of the values of that discipline. And it isn’t possible that school will be able to predict all the twists and turns of an individual’s career, or all of the changes to a discipline or profession. It will always be a work in progress. So, I know that they haven’t come out with anything [training related to academic research writing that leads to published articles] so I saw my role to mentor the authors, which, for me, meant then that I would take the reviews and triangulate what was given, make sure to read the article myself (I would always read an article when it came in to see if it was appropriate and to see if it matched the scope). But then I would do a second read and particularly, depending on the feedback given by the reviewers, I’d take a deep read and give extensive feedback myself so that I knew in context what the reviewers’ feedback meant. I didn’t hide reviewers’ feedback ever. So, if there was a horrible reviewer two it wasn’t like I hid their feedback. But I would contextualize the feedback that was given and bullet out what I expected the actionable feedback to be for the author so that they were addressing that rather than two contradictory smorgasbord approaches of vanity items from the reviewers. So that all said – I am trying to think of an actual instance of a reviewer two. I am having a hard time coming up with reviewer two. What I had was so many cursory reviews that were so insubstantial as to be meaningless, and that’s what led me to need to do a really deep read. Because if there was nothing there I would have known based on my first read, that the content, the idea matched our scope. But the execution, whatever it might be, needed work and no info was given [from the referee]. So the more realistic situation was that, in my view, reviewers had no idea how to think like scholars in that way and provide feedback that could lead to action and improvement.
Emily: And why do you think that is?
Back to library school.
Emily: Okay, so it comes back to this lack of training?
Yeah, so lack of a research-driven approach to our profession. That leads to having that training whether that comes from library school or on the job or whatever it might be.
Emily: Who do you think should be responsible for that? You say keep going back to library school but obviously it’s not happening in library school.
Well, this kind of writing isn’t an end goal of many librarians. So for public librarians, for example, who have no clear need to publish, some might have a desire to publish and would work at it, but it’s definitely not an across the board [expectation], whereas the expectation in academia as we know it, is if you’re going to get your degree in physics, the jobs in physics will be professor. Here’s how that works and the apprenticing is very clear. Librarianship doesn’t necessarily end with this as the goal, so I think without having tracks in library school – so I went to the University of Washington’s iSchool [in the mid 2000s]. There wasn’t really an academic librarian track so it wasn’t a way to specialize along those lines. That’s the only way I guess I would see it happening is if you were required to do the work of apprenticing for that profession.
Emily: You keep using this word apprentice and I really like it. It’s not one that I’ve heard someone use before with librarianship as much. You hear internship but it’s not necessarily the same as apprentice. I had this idea while you were talking why don’t we have editorial apprentices? Why don’t we do that? It seems like it would be a really rich training ground to learn a lot of all of the other stuff.