academic publishing · emotional labour · feminist communities · peer review

Sokal Spare Me: Hoaxes and Anti-feminism

So here we are again. Somebody (three of them this time) thinks that they are so smart and clever. They are going to show the academy, and especially the feminist, queer, and racialized academy, that it doesn’t know anything.

All it shows me is that these three people — and I am purposely working on forgetting their names because I am a professional and I hope to give their real work a fair shake if I ever came across it, which is more than they deserve, but I am nothing if not an actual professional even though I feel a lot of rage at this particular moment — have shown a profound disdain for the gendered labour of academic journal editing and peer reviewing.

When I say that peer review and journal editing is gendered work, I mean that it is largely (if not wholly) invisible, underpaid or not paid at all, and almost entirely thankless.

As I wrote in my Love Letter to Peer Reviewers Everywhere, peer reviewers rock my world. I see their work everywhere: “in that book that changed the course of my dissertation, in that first article of mine that saw the light of printed day, in that other article that I taught in my grad seminar that re-oriented the entire discussion for the better, in all these journals that I read when I get a chance, marveling at all this marvelous work out there.”

They make all that happen. They make my world smarter, brighter, and just plain better.

I peer review anywhere between five and ten articles a year. It takes weeks of time that I never have. No one will know that I did it except the editor of the journal who can’t reveal my identity anyways. I do it because someone else did it for me and because I know that this completely invisible and thankless labour is a crucial part of sustaining our work as scholars.

Like most scholars at my age and stage, I serve on the editorial boards for three or four major journals both in Canada and internationally. This also takes a lot of time that I never have.

I was the co-editor of an academic journal for three years. It just about killed me. I just agreed to step back into that role because the current editor asked and I respect him so much and he is overwhelmed by the work and I know exactly how overwhelmig it is. It is the main cultural studies journal in Canada. If we don’t do this, there wouldn’t be a publication venue for a lot of amazing cultural studies work. As editors, we do not get paid for this work. I don’t get course release or a stipend. There may be the tiniest crumb of prestige but it is frankly outweighed by the reality of the work — hundreds of hours fielding angry or nudging emails while shepherding manuscripts through the peer review process while the authors are anxious and mad at me for not getting their work turned around more quickly.

Others have pointed out that academic journal publishing is a good faith system. This hoax takes advantage of the deep generosity of a community of scholars in order to score a stupidly cheap point. It does not show that the journals, fields, and disciplines that it targets are fraudulent. It shows that these three people had so much time on their hands, and so little regard for their peers, that they are happy to waste the time of people who are trying to make space and give a platform for new scholarship.

This hoax comes across as anti-feminist not because of the content of the articles but because its very form is premised on scorn and derision for deeply gendered labour. It misunderstands power. It mistakes peer reviewing for gate keeping. It mistakes the journal editor as a disciplinary figurehead. I don’t know of anyone who agrees to peer review something because they want to keep someone or some thinking out of the field. And journal editing is, honestly, an extravagant convergence of caretaking and traffic control.

So, spare me. Spare me this thinly disguised contempt for gendered labour. Spare me this willingness to waste time we never had.