By Joshua Piker
January 20, 2021
Updates from the WMQ
13 min read
By Joshua Piker, Editor
It will likely come as no surprise to learn that I spend way too much time worrying about authorial voice. For an editor, that’s very on-brand. I only raise the issue because I’ve been worrying, in particular, about my authorial voice on this blog.
I’ve got two go-to voices for blog posts, neither of which seems right for this historical moment. I have not really been in the mood to write Jokey But With A Message posts in the world of COVID, Trump, and insurrection. And a post about the WMQ written in the vein of A Serious Tone For A Serious Topic has seemed profoundly off-key when I think about all our friends and family, colleagues and neighbors, who are confronting challenges that make whatever issues the journal is facing seem like very small potatoes indeed.
Put another way, like many of us, I’ve struggled with how to effectively engage with a world in which effective engagement has never seemed more important. As a result, I’ve started and abandoned several version of this post over the last six months, each of which wound up feeling either trivial or disproportionate.
But I’m also keenly aware both that the WMQ plays an important role in conversations that I very much value and that the participants in those conversations have a right to know what’s happening at the journal. In fact, transparent and consistent communication are at a premium right now and will be for the foreseeable future. So, permit me to offer a few updates about the journal’s processes since our office closed because of COVID.
The WMQ’s offices went virtual in mid-March. The transition went quite smoothly, in part because the technologies and practices that the virtual world requires were at the center of our working lives long before COVID: Zoom for staff meetings; Trello for workflow; Dropbox for archiving and sharing documents; email and phone for one-on-one communication between staff members and with authors, peer reviewers, the typesetter, cartographer, and printer; iPads for correcting page proofs; JSTOR, Project Muse, and the OI Reader (along with print) for publishing content. As a result, we were well-positioned to move into the all-virtual mode. Our world-class staff has made that transition smoothly and professionally. I have never been more grateful for my exceptional colleagues at the OI and especially for the members of Team Quarterly: Carol Arnette, Meg Musselwhite, Nick Popper, and Holly White.
Beyond the challenges associated with working from home, we have encountered relatively few roadblocks. We did have to adjust our procedures for fact-checking as our graduate apprentices dealt first with a closed university library and then with a library that has fluctuating policies for checking out material. We have likewise had long discussions about the books that come in for the book review section—how to process them, how to make them accessible to our staff, how to send them out to reviewers, how to fact-check reviews (yes, we fact-check reviews!) when our library is no longer able to purchase us copies of the books in question, and how to handle the disconnect between publishers who want to send PDFs and reviewers who ask for hard copies.
The solutions that we’ve hit upon haven’t always been perfect, and we keep bumping into new challenges. Most recently: how to fact-check the articles for the April and July 2021 issues when our graduate student fact-checkers went home a month earlier than normal and are coming back a month later because William & Mary has adjusted its academic calendar to reduce the risk of a COVID outbreak on campus. Each challenge requires new and tentative solutions, and each challenge takes time and energy to think/talk/work through. That reality is, I’m sure, all too familiar to each of you.
Throughout, we’ve been guided by the mantra “Good Enough.” Sometimes you have to do your best, declare victory, and move on. And in fact there have been victories—or if “victories” seems a little overblown, let’s say “positive developments.”
April, July, and October’s issues of the journal appeared on-time and contain scholarship that I am proud to publish. Team Quarterly has also worked with our OI colleagues to launch the new version of the OI Reader, our web-based app for computers, tablets, and phones. If you haven’t checked out the reading and annotating experience that OIR 2.0 permits, I strongly urge you to do so. And OIR 2.0’s appearance was perfectly timed because it contributed to our effort to respond to the epidemic by making as much of our content as possible as freely available as possible. Those decisions have financial costs, but reliable historical scholarship is a shockingly scarce commodity these days. We’ve tried to do what we can to remedy that problem.
And the other end of the operation? Let me switch gears and update you on the WMQ’s manuscript submission and peer review numbers in the world of COVID.
Manuscript submissions initially fell off by more than a bit in the spring, for all sorts of obvious reasons. Things began to pick up in May and June, however, and we wound up with 103 manuscript submissions for the year. That’s 15% off last year’s total, but last year’s 119 submissions were a highwater mark not topped since 1999. On average since 2000, 106 scholars per year have sent their work our way. So, simply in terms of scholars sending their work to the journal, this year’s numbers are broadly in line with our average over the last two decades.
As for the identities of the scholars involved in the peer review process, the journal does not have a process by which we ask authors or peer reviewers to self-report regarding their gender or racial identities. What follows, therefore, is meant to be suggestive, not definitive, and it relies on a set of blunt categories that allow us to glimpse some trends while failing to truly encapsulate the diverse nature of our field and how that is (and is not) reflected in the journal’s publication processes.
Looking simply at the scholars who submitted manuscripts to the journal between March 1—that is, since it became clear that academia would be going virtual—and December 31, the eighty-eight essays (three of which were co-written) that we’ve received have been authored by forty-five women and forty-eight men; ten of the authors would, I believe, self-identify as people of color. For the last few years, the ratio of the journal’s manuscript authors has been about 40-60 female-to-male; this year’s that ratio is 48-52. As that suggests, while some journals have seen a marked decline in manuscripts by female authors since the epidemic began, that hasn’t been the case at the WMQ.
Of the manuscripts that I sent out for review since March 1, 57% were authored by female scholars, and likewise 57% of the 312 scholars who I asked to serve as readers were female. Of the manuscripts that went out for review, 75% were evaluated by at least one scholar of color, and 30% of the 312 scholars who I approached to serve as readers were scholars of color. None of the essays that went out for review from March 1 on have yet have appeared in print, but of the twenty articles and essays that we published in 2020, thirteen (65%) were authored by women and eight (35%) by men, a change from the roughly 50-50 ratio that has characterized the journal’s publication record over the last three or four years. My sense is that 20% of the scholars whose essays we published in 2020 would identify as people of color.
If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you’ll know that presenting those numbers as I have just done makes me uncomfortable because I’m relying on a mix of fuzzy impressions and rigid categories. But I’m afraid that’s the best I can offer. More to the point, it would make me more uncomfortable still not to share the information—even if the data is inevitably flawed—at my disposal.
After all, academic journals have long struggled w/ equity and inclusion, on the one hand, and transparency, on the other. To the extent that those struggles are linked, offering even an imprecise and overly simplistic summary of one journal’s pool of authors and readers is worth doing.