Lost in Publication: A Riddle For Readers

Riddle me this: how can two votes in favour and one vote not, result in an overall resounding no?

This is the question that has plagued the past week after my first manuscript was rejected by the publishing house that shall remain anonymous.

Before heckles of sour-grapes commence, I must emit a disclosure: in the past year rejection has become as much a part of my day as washing up, reading, and clattering on the keyboard.

In a time when one academic position attracts more than 100 applicants on a fortuitous day, and around 400 on a bad, rejection becomes an inevitable but constant nuisance.

Equally, I am all in favour of constructive criticism – ‘constructive’ being the operative word.

When lucidly explained and thoughtfully demonstrated, the quips and comments of editors and reviewers are a boon and often result in the original article or manuscript becoming ameliorated beyond previous conceptions.

The past year has been kind in terms of publications: for articles in journals I’m on a score of three out of three, ibid with reviews and conferences that have yet to taste rejection.

Naturally, I assumed that my manuscript would be equally successful.

Nevertheless, the publishing process has been littered with more obstacles than a gymkhana, resulting in the conclusion being less useful, and more a mess of epic and disheartening proportions.

As a newbie to the publishing game (in terms of books), I remained slightly naive throughout. Perhaps had I been a little more ruthless, I could have avoided the sorry debacle.

Last January I submitted my thesis towards the publishing house on the firm recommendation of my supervisor and examiners who agreed that it provided a unique insight into an under-researched field.

After three months of no contact, the editor responded that the primary and secondary reviewers had stated that no comment could be made either way.

This process was to be repeated four more times, each time the anonymous reviewer holding on to a copy of my manuscript, yet providing no feedback.

The first few occasions befuddled me; I spoke to another editor and he was equally disconcerted, but urged me to be patient.

This behaviour struck me as odd; when I agree to conduct a review I must sign a contract that compels a review to be made. Should I default and refuse to comment, so too must the book be returned.

Why the editor failed to implement the same terms is but one of the many occurrences that remain incomprehensible.

Which brings us to this week, when I received the email with much relish, mistaken in the thought that at last the reviewers had responded and I could make merry with the lengthy corrections – for I was not deluded on that point.

Regrettably, the editor wrote, the majority of reviewers felt the manuscript was not fit for publication and accordingly the publisher could no longer take it forward.

Aghast would be an understatement of my reaction; a torrent of wailing was unleashed that would have sent a banshee scuttling for cover.

(I must add that I am generally stoic and not of the wailing kind; my tears are usually reserved for onions, chillies, documentaries about Palestine, and small injured animals.)

In a fit of melodrama, I declared that I would not read the reviewers comments and would instead take to my bed with a variety of smelling salts and pity-party paraphernalia for seven days.

Alas, curiosity could not be silenced for long and I read through the comments last night.

And herein lies the rub: at the base of the standard form for reviewing the reviewers are given three options: a) I recommend this for publication without corrections; b) I recommend this for publication providing the changes mentioned are enacted; and c) I do not recommend this for publication.

Two out of three reviewers chose b); one chose c).

The one who chose c) was particularly problematic; gender unknown, let us call them Professor Q.

Professor Q decided that rather than answer all questions, they would only answer three out of seven, and to compare the responses would be to believe that Professor Q had read a different manuscript than Professors X and Y.

For example, when asked whether the manuscript could be of use in academia and how, Professor X stated that “it is a valuable contribution to the field of identity studies”; Professor Y mused that “yes, it is an excellent resource for students of nationalism and Middle Eastern studies”; while Professor Q monosyllabised: “No.”.

Case study two: “What do you think of the author’s written style?” Professor X ululated that “I was very excited by the author’s writing and when she injected her own views, it was even more so. She clearly has a flair for writing”; Professor Y: “The narrative is clear and coherent, perhaps more theory is needed, but the writing is very good”. And lastly, our malcontent, Professor Q: “The author has extremely poor linguistic and analytical skills. She has no ability to use words and is frequently incoherent…” and so on, etc. etc. for a whole paragraph of base insults that had no reference.

This is the crux: criticism is valuable when it is tactful and if, on the occasion that it must be cruel, backed up by references, such as “is frequently incoherent, for example on page 5, ‘I like to eat steel pots climbing trees in Jordan'”.

While Professors X and Y summoned up lengthy and fascinating ideas and corrections for questions 1-7, Professor Q lost interest after question 2, and responded “N/A” to every other query, before expostulating in bold, 16-size font at the end: c) DO NOT RECOMMEND FOR PUBLICATION.

It is interesting then, why the editor chose to go with the one ‘no-vote’ who only answered 3 out of 7 questions, did not provide constructive recommendations, references, and was generally unprofessional in their comments, rather than the majoritive two who felt it was necessary to publish the findings.

I am confused, confounded, slightly crushed, and most of all in need of comments: is such practice common in academia and publishing?

Dear readers and bloggers, I leave it to you  to fathom this most dastardly of riddles.

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This entry was posted on March 30, 2009 by in Jordan, Layla, note-to-self and tagged , , , .
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