emotional labour · heartbreak · peer review · risk · workload

Academic Roadkill

GrindImage via

We are so lucky to have a guest post from the inimitable Linda Morra. Here she is, thinking hard about how the “grievance studies” hoax hurts:

I’ve thought quite a lot about roadkill recently, probably because of the long stretch of drive, from Montreal (where I live) to Sherbrooke (where I teach). Today, it was a deer; a couple of days ago, it was a raccoon and a cat. I consistently think about how these animals were simply foraging for food, innocent of their imminent violent end—one that was just veering around the corner and bearing down on them, as the result of a vehicle on an entirely different trajectory. I feel for these animals – I sometimes even foolishly weep for them.

And today, this week in particular, I identified with them.

I am not actual roadkill, very obviously. But, when I read about the latest version of the Sokal hoax, which produced and found publication for sham essays that spouted left-wing ideology, I felt like I was thrown to a curb. They were out to prove that the social sciences and humanities are not undergirded by proper research, but rather by left-wing ideology. Apparently, seven of twenty of the latest Sokal hoaxes were accepted. Seven. That’s one third. It saddens me to think that either the editors or peer reviewers weren’t doing their job, and that it has, as a result, cast suspicion on the entire field.

On some levels, I think the hoax serves as an important reminder of how some of us failed in our responsibility by allowing such articles to find publication. How different are we from, say, some very right-wing American news station, if we simply allow left-wing ideology to stand, rather than allowing real and meaningful scholarship to undergird the ideology? Than well-articulated, defensible points of view? Aren’t we just producing fake news too?

Perhaps some of us are. But here is why I felt like roadkill: many, if not most of us, aren’t.

As Lily Cho pointed out, we invest substantial voluntary time—and often unrecognized, at that—in peer-reviewing. We are the ones who invest countless hours in reading and vetting papers for scholarly journals and manuscripts; we also train students, both graduate and undergraduate about what real scholarship means and what it looks like; we try to build meaningful connections and address injustices, locally and globally. I and others often do this work with very little recognition or reward—neither public, nor institutional. We do not take up time in a spotlight as a means of advancing ourselves or our careers, and, for many of us, there is no other reason to make such an investment. (For a moment, at least, I’d like us to reflect upon how, conversely, these three academics used their time, as a point of contrast. Seriously—didn’t they have better things to do?)

There is no reward, particularly, for vetting a manuscript or an essay for a journal—not at my institution, anyway. But I still do it, at regular intervals, and try to provide feedback with care—looking up sources to make sure what has been presented is accurate and to check claims that are being made. Some of the claims are not properly historically grounded—the writer might try to apply recent theoretical or ideological trends anachronistically. I check that tendency. Others simply pretend that no other academic has done the research before—and “disappear” other critics in the process in order to elevate their own scholarly ego (more of that in another blog post). Usually, I and other peer reviewers do our best to catch these kinds of errors, because we know we have a standard to maintain. We may not always succeed—but we try.

Why do we do this? Because peer-reviewers are, in fact, gate-keepers. There’s no point in claiming we are not, because we ultimately determine what passes muster and what does not.

And this is not an issue of control, as some of my own colleagues have suggested—because that would render us no different than any major news outlet that lays claim to ideology as news rather than factually-based research. We do it out of a sense of personal and communal responsibility. And responsibility means accountability. And accountability works on multiple levels: from the individuals who write the articles, to those who serve as peer reviewers, to the editors themselves.

That’s why I feel like roadkill: I and others have been inadvertently injured too. The recent Sokal hoax may have shown us where the weakest links in our chain are. The perpetrators themselves engaged in an unethical intellectual exercise to prove that ideological politics have supplanted scholarship, or at least that very little scholarship undergirds the ideological politics being championed—in the very realm where it shouldn’t do that.

But, in the process, they harmed the credibility of many good academics, who are committed to their work and to maintaining scholarly standards—which may now seem like no standard at all.


Linda Morra is a Professor of English at Bishop’s University. She has tried to research and publish meticulously about archives, especially those related to women writers in Canada, including Sheila Watson, Jane Rule, and M. NourbeSe Philip (in Unarrested Archives, UTP 2014). She is extremely grateful to her peer reviewers and editors, who have invested time in providing critical feedback that has helped to shape and improve her scholarly work.