December 2007 Archives

Adeyami sent three articles for publication in quick succession in late 2004 when I was settling into my editorship of TESOL Quarterly (TQ). No sooner had I rejected one than the next one would arrive from Nigeria. I wasn’t even sure if he waited to read my comments before he sent the next submission. I haven’t seen any author with so much enthusiasm for academic publishing.

It was not that Adeyami didn’t have some original insights into the educational situation in Africa. It was not that he didn’t know the dominant trends in language teaching to speak with authority on the issues he was taking up for analysis. It was simply that the articles never followed our guidelines for publication. It appeared as if the author didn’t focus clearly on the preferred format, discourse, and conventions of TQ. One of the articles was based on the author’s personal observation of classroom life; the article wasn’t data driven. Another article was based on very dated publications and, therefore, framed inappropriately in terms of the current conversations in our journal. All of them didn’t follow the APA guidelines, were too short for our main section, and structured in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. I felt bad that an author with such enthusiasm had to be rejected mainly for not following our publishing guidelines and conventions.

Flash forward to July 2005, about seven months later. I am in Madison, Wisconsin, in the conference of the International Association of Applied Linguistics. As I treat myself to some wine in one of those open receptions thrown by some rich American university, the name badge “Adeyami” flashes in front of my eyes. I make sure I am not seeing things. The tiredness of listening to long lectures in endless panel discussions, made worse by the wine consumed on empty stomach, might have made my mind float to Africa. But, no, it is indeed him.

I pull Adeyami to a side and introduce myself. I explain how painful it was to reject his articles when our readers badly needed such knowledge on the educational scene in Africa. I ask him why he hadn’t read our publishing guidelines closely so that he could write with greater relevance and appropriateness to our journal. It is then that he blurts out the shocking information: he had never read or even seen a single issue of TQ. I ask him why he had chosen to submit the article to TQ then. He simply said that he had heard of TQ as the leading journal in the field and proceeded to obtain the editorial address from the website. His university library did not subscribe to TQ—nor to many other journals in the field. For this reason, he couldn’t also base his discussions on recent research and publications.

I feel powerless when I hear stories like this. I realize how little I can do as an editor, though I often speak idealistically about democratizing academic publishing. The odds are stacked heavily against scholars outside the more developed countries. We have a cycle of self-perpetuating problems. Because academic journals are priced so expensively, many periphery universities and scholars are unable to subscribe to our journals. If they don’t read our journals, periphery scholars can’t send submissions that meet our guidelines, discourses, or stylistic conventions. As their submissions are rejected, academic knowledge is defined narrowly as it is based solely on the research from the more developed communities. As we cater to a small circle of scholars with resources to engage in publishing, we don’t complain against the increasing price of journals or the huge funds needed for research.

I think of many controversial options: Should we really insist on the in-house stylistic and citation conventions, if an author has something significant to share with us? Is the lack of recent publications in the references really a big deal if the article reflects a general awareness of the trends in the discipline? Is data (by which we tend to mean information gathered in a systematic and controlled fashion over a substantial period of time, with a large subject pool, and sophisticated instruments) really important to validate our knowledge—i.e., what’s wrong with intuition, reflection, and informal observation as the basis of one’s article? Should we really insist on an impersonal blind review and subject periphery authors to the same competitive evaluation, when their scholarly context is in no way equal to other scholars who publish in our journals? When we need more research and information from peripheral communities to challenge our assumptions and make a critical contribution to our field, shouldn’t we step out of the impersonal review process and help, mentor, and even shepherd such rare submissions into print, without bothering about charges of bias, favoritism, or unfairness?

I knew I wasn’t going to succeed any time soon in persuading the publishing companies in the West to send free copies of their journals to Africa. I knew I wasn’t going to succeed in achieving open access in scholarly publishing right away. Other correctives, like reforming our publishing conventions, revising our assumptions of research knowledge, and re-envisioning the nature of good research writing are all even farther behind in anyone’s agenda.

I satisfied my conscience when I returned home by putting Adeyami on the mailing list for one of the 10 complimentary copies given to the editor of TQ. But how many more Adeyamis are out there? And how few complimentary copies . . . !

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