By Daniel Scott Souleles

Any casual observer of the landscape of academic publishing would likely come to the conclusion that most journals are run rather idiosyncratically. This becomes apparent when a crisis strikes.

A few years ago, when the anthropology journal Hau imploded, it became apparent that the journal really didn’t have any internal controls or processes that divided power away from the editor who ran the whole show. This was a problem when the editor became the problem, and led to no small number of resignations, recriminations, cataloging-s of exploitation, fairly dramatic shifts in the ownership and management of the journal, as well as a long-running and embarrassing soap-opera-esque drama in anthropological social media.

It’s not just anthropology, though. Several years ago, the philosophy journal Hypatia found itself in the midst of a public controversy over an article on “transracism.” As the public controversy over the article ebbed and flowed, at one point the editor resigned, and the remaining board members held up the appointment of a new editor. This paralysis led to the formation of an ad hoc committee and a restructuring of the journal’s governance.

Poke around a bit, and you’ll find versions of this sort of failure of governance and ad hoc crisis management at all sorts of journals: you’ll find it at Third World Quarterly when their editorial board tried to figure out how on earth their editor published an article in favor of colonialism. You’ll find it at The Journal of Political Philosophy when they try to figure out why their publisher, Wiley (also Economic Anthropology’s publisher), fired their editor. A bit more broadly, we can see similar sorts of governance failure and impromptu crisis management rolling across academia as universities try to figure out how they ought to respond to bad faith accusations of plagiarism.

Given this backdrop, the editorial board of Economic Anthropology has sought to formalize our operations as well as how we will respond to conflict in a governing document, which can be found here. In so doing, we tried to stick to a few principles.

First, we wanted to put checks on the power of the editor. To do this we created an active editorial board. To change the governing document and thereby the journal’s operations, one needs a majority of the editorial board in support. Similarly, the editor is selected and can be dismissed by the Society for Economic Anthropology’s board. Finally, actual peer review of each article is managed by a rolling selection of two members of the editorial board. This means that the editor can’t act unilaterally in the publication of peer reviewed material, and that there are always three sets of eyes on any submission. An added benefit of this last point, too, is that authors tend to get detailed, personal feedback on their manuscripts.

Second, we wanted to have a plan in place for when crises should come up. To this end, we’ve designed a complaint process whereby members of the editorial board review a complaint and then report to the rest of the board. The board then votes if they want to take any action. We go on to explain what exactly we can and cannot do as an academic journal. For better or worse, we don’t have the power to incarcerate or fine, but we do have the power to publish and retract, as well as to associate or disaffiliate with someone or some group. We can also make statements and explain our actions. Backstopping all of this is the supervision of the Society’s governing board.

Finally, we wanted to explain how and why we recruit people to work on the journal, how long their work should go on, and how people should cycle off. The idea here is that we didn’t want to replace an editorial power center with a permanent standing committee. Everyone should know what they’re doing, why they’re here, and when they can move on. It’s all professional service work—nothing more, nothing less.

Obviously no clever policy can anticipate every crisis that will come up. Still, we feel this governing document helps to routinize our review process, gives predictable structure to changing the journal, and gives us something to go to in the event of a crisis. It also lets you know who to complain to if you don’t like what we’re up to. At least considering that last point, what more could any academic want?


About the Author: Daniel Souleles