Accounting for academia

I had a rather unpleasant experience recently with the editor of a renowned Geography journal. Following some revisions suggested by two blind reviewers I naively assumed that the process was almost at completion instead the editor decided that my paper should be written in a very particular way. The next four months involved the editor sending me PDF scans of my paper which included their hand written comments in the margin. I was surprised at first as this did not seem like a usual course but assumed that since the editor was known to me that maybe this was a personal touch. As time went on and each retuned PDF included new comments my confusion increased and gradually my article began to lose all familiarity. I love to write and I am acutely aware that academic journal writing is a very particular form and one which I have spent the past 10 years trying to embrace. The situation I found myself in was strange and suffocating. All sense of ownership was removed and still the editor was not satisfied. Eventually I insisted that if they were to return the article to me again that they provide a narrative of their sense of the article and what they wanted from me. The response was a rejection.

At first I was devastated then I was livid and now I am resolved that academic writing is in fact not at all creative. Academic writing is formulaic and involves satisfying the whims of reviewers and editors in terms of style and content. Do not misunderstand my comments here for those of someone who is bitter because of some perceived failure – I can write and I am undoubting that my research is accurately done. My concern is that I am required to write according to a formula, and simultaneously I am expected to encourage my students to be creative and to be critical thinkers.

As I delved deeper into different theoretical avenues during the course of my PhD research, I also encountered a pattern which I found extremely vexing – academics I admired publishing the same data in different journals. Data gathered reused with a different research question framed to comply to the journal’s audience. The realization that writing is not being carried out for the joy or beauty of the exercise or in order to transfer knowledge, but rather to meet career requirements. It’s less about the production of knowledge than where that knowledge will be showcased and what effect that will have  on the author’s career.

I am not saying that academic publishing has no value. Certainly well-researched, clearly written scholarly research has its own value: it shapes and reshapes understanding, and can inform policy, but the work must be accessible. Accessibility is the key question and for the present I have the strong sense my voice needs to find a different avenue.