It’s Time to End the Publishing Gatekeeping!

A letter from RaceB4Race Executive Board

Seeta Chaganti asking a question during the plenary presentations at RaceB4Race Race and Periodization

In the summer of 2018, the International Congress of Medieval Studies rejected a set of proposals for sessions on race and antiracism by Medievalists of Color. We responded by creating an alternative space — RaceB4Race, which is an ongoing conference series and professional network community by and for scholars of color working on issues of race in premodern literature, history, and culture. RaceB4Race centers the expertise, perspectives, and sociopolitical interests of BIPOC scholars, whose work seeks to expand critical race theory. Although we imagined that the first gathering would be a small affair (thirty or so participants), three hundred participants registered — undergraduate students, faculty, university staff, graduate students, community college students, high school teachers, administrators, artists, allies, and members of the community. By creating a space to engage with premodern critical race studies, RaceB4Race fulfilled a long unmet need. RaceB4Race proved that premodern critical race studies is not a niche field!

Recognizing that there was a large interest in the papers, and recognizing that we had to support the early career researchers involved, the organizers of RaceB4Race always had an eye on publication. After all, our careers as researchers are often assessed by publication venues, and scholars of color can find it more difficult to navigate the strange networks in publishing than our white colleagues. RaceB4Race would solve this problem by 1) producing some of the most cutting-edge research in premodern studies and 2) creating a community of scholars that has much greater access to and knowledge of the networks in the publishing world.

Feeling confident in the quality, importance, and desirability of the essays, we aimed to publish them in a Theories and Methodologies cluster in PMLA, the flagship journal in literary studies. We inquired if the editor would be interested and received a warm invitation to submit the cluster. Nonetheless, here is the rejection we eventually received:

Screenshot of an email to Ayanna Thompson from the MLA

We were disappointed and confused by this rejection, especially by the suggestion that the range of contributors was “constrained,” given that our contributors’ expertise ranges from the history of medieval studies to slavery in early modern England to 17th-century French court ballets. In what sense could our range possibly read as “constrained”? Perhaps “constrained” in that we did not include some older, more established white men to validate our calls for antiracist methodologies and pedagogies? But even more troubling was the suggestion that the editors were expecting and imagining “opposing perspectives” to an antiracist collection. What kind of “opposing perspectives” were imagined exactly? The cluster’s intervention pointed towards an entirely new direction for premodern studies, and its push for a radical transformation of the field was dismissed with a one-liner that hinged on ellipses and illogic. This second rejection felt eerily similar to the first by the International Congress of Medieval Studies.

We were even more surprised, then, when the MLA released its statement deploring systemic racism a mere two weeks after our gatekeeping rejection:

Statement from the MLA deploring systemic racism

While this call recognizes that access, inclusion, and the right to be heard are disproportionately distributed, and while it recognizes that there are structures of white supremacy in place that silence and oppress black people and voices, the organization’s flagship journal had just dismissed a cluster on antiracist methodologies written by POC scholars. In the light of our cluster’s rejection by the MLA’s own publishing arm, this call for inclusion sounded painfully hollow at best, disingenuous at worst. There is a lot of interest in the rhetoric of inclusion, but is there stamina for actual and actionable change?

PMLA Published 36 Premodern Essays from 2010–2020

Because the collective that is RaceB4Race is privileged in many ways, we can make the exchange with this journal public. Our essays will be published in another venue. We write this piece, not to speak for our own collection, but for those scholars of color whose pieces should have shaped our field but have never been given the chance to be heard. We are revealing our exchange with PMLA not to single them out, but to showcase a pattern of academic gatekeeping. This is not a problem of the PMLA alone. The problem is systemic.

All academic journals and presses need to think about what structures are limiting access and hindering the full participation of scholars of color. After all, how academic journals structure their practices reflects their values. Here are a few outdated structures and systems that deserve to be interrogated:

  • Editorial boards: How diverse is the journal/press’s editorial board? How inclusive is the journal/press’s editorial structure? How are board members selected? Are the qualifications for serving on the board made public? Can people apply to serve on the board? Can people be nominated to serve on the board? Are board members used equally (i.e., do they all review the same amount of submissions)? Who determines when they are used, and what is the criteria for that decision? In other words, how can the journal/press ward against tokenistic practices?
  • Double-blind review: Who or what is the journal/press protecting in the process of review? Why are the reviewers’ identities concealed? Who does this benefit? Why? What might be gained if reviewers had to reveal their identities? Can reviewers see each other’s reviews? Are reviewers notified of the final outcome of the review? In other words, how can the journal/press create a more ethical and informed review process?
  • Evaluative criteria: How does the journal/press articulate for its reviewers the qualities of “strong” scholarship for emerging fields? What assumptions underlie the definitions in that respect? And what politics inform those assumptions? In other words, how can the journal/press actively promote paradigm shifts?

We know that an overwhelming majority enthusiastically supports the development of premodern critical race studies. We know first-hand that our colleagues want to engage with more resources, more insights, and more cutting-edge scholarship from our field in their own research and teaching. But the current editorial practices of most academic journals hinder the production of the intellectual resources that are needed now more than ever: the publishing gatekeeping is hurting us all.

No matter how much academic journals aspire to support our work, they will continue to fail us all until we face these systemic issues head-on. Let us be clear, this is not an isolated problem at one journal. Our data analysis indicates that this is a systemic issue. For instance, in one flagship journal in our field, there have been no essays published on premodern critical race studies in the past five years aside from a special edition on the topic in 2016 (one and done?). In another, there has not even been a special edition on race in this century; you’d have to go back to 1998 for that. And in still another one — a flagship journal for historians this time — interest in tearing down disciplinary barriers collapsed upon reception of our cluster.

With the systemic problem in mind, the executive board of RaceB4Race hereby calls for a public forum on academic editorial practices for our moment. We call on all our colleagues — scholars, educators, editors, publishers, administrators — to start a conversation about the systemic flaws of academic publishing, which disproportionately affect fields like critical race studies and BIPOC scholars. Let us think together, and then, let us make real changes.

This is not just a call-out, this is a call for. And we hope you will join us.

In true solidarity,
The Executive Board of RaceB4Race

February 2022 Update: In June 2020, the RaceB4Race Executive Board published a call for journals to join in a collective effort to end editorial gate-keeping in premodern studies in The Sundial. To date, the call has been viewed over 14,000 times. The RaceB4Race community has been heartened by the public response to this call and by many editors’ enthusiasm for the project. The call clearly resonated with many journal editors’ long-standing commitments. Now that over a year has passed since our original call, we want to publicize the structural changes and specific practices that various journals in early modern studies have implemented over the past year in response to our call as part of our mission to increase access to the entire publication process. We feel that collaboration is central to this endeavor, and that other journals and editorial teams could learn from the actions that these journals have taken so far. Thus, we are delighted to share this update, with the gracious permission of those journals’ editors.

Mona Narain, ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640–1830

“As an open access journal founded on feminist principles, ABO’s editorial collective has been committed to review and publication practices that are open and inclusive. Yet, we found the statement made by the RaceB4Race collective energizing to do more. In the past year, we have specifically reached out to scholars from underrepresented communities to solicit and publish work that interrogates and reveals the causes, histories, and narratives of the harmful intersections of patriarchy, sexism, racism, slavery, colonialism, and gender discrimination in the materials we study as scholars as well as in our lives. We have created a new ‘Conversations’ section in the journal, specifically devoted to such discussions, in addition to welcoming general submissions on these topics. Our spring 2021 issue features Conversations on ‘Researching, Reading, and Writing During the Pandemic’ and a Conversation cluster on “Race and Jane Austen Studies” is in preparation. After witnessing the toll of the pandemic on women and junior scholars, ABO’s editors created a free #WritewithAphra summer-long writing camp in 2020 to encourage research that drew about 120 scholars from three continents. We tracked and reported on the camp in our Winter 2020 issue. Collaborations have continued amongst participants. We follow a single-blind review policy. Though authors remain anonymous, external reviewers sign their name to ensure productive assessments. We have readers in over 150 countries so we are updating our review guidelines to ensure reviews are sensitive to multiple differences and a global context. Finally, we are in the process of expanding our editorial board, making policies for board selection transparent (to be published on our website), to include junior scholars and scholars from underrepresented groups who represent emerging, exciting areas of scholarship.”

Melinda Gough, General Editor for Early Theatre:

“Early Theatre’s editorial team has relied heavily on the guiding questions and suggestions for concrete actions shared with us, and other journals, by the RaceB4Race executive board, as we have worked over the past year to make the journal a more equitable publication venue with particular attention to race, disability, sexuality, and gender.

Thus far, the changes we have implemented focus on increasing transparency and accountability. We began with revisions to publicly available journal information and updates to our peer-review processes. We have revised our website’s editorial team listing, for example, to credit the early career researchers whose expertise as editorial assistants contributes so much to the journal’s ongoing work; updated our About the Journal page to include detailed information regarding our procedures and policies; simplified our submission preparation checklist to remove unnecessary barriers for potential contributors; and rewritten, to avoid ableist language, the journal’s statements regarding doubly-anonymous peer review. We have updated our guidelines for peer reviewers with an eye to fostering greater accountability, and have implemented an optional author survey designed to support contributors (giving contributors an opportunity to suggest appropriate arms-length reviewers, for example).

In Fall 2021, we held a meeting of our editorial advisory board to begin discussing changes regarding the advisory board and core editorial team. Once new policies and processes with respect to recruitment, appointment, and renewal are finalized, the journal will be putting out an open call for new advisory board members, paired with active recruitment of scholars from equity-deserving groups with a particular focus on race, disability, sexuality, and gender. Early Theatre hopes to institute a new funded assistant editorship designed to provide training and support for new leaders in publishing, with a particular aim of fostering opportunities for emerging scholars from groups historically excluded on the basis of race, including as it intersects with disability, sexuality, and gender.

We have begun investigating how to collect and report on demographic data. We are also reviewing our book review policies and our practices for inclusive language and citational practices. Over the next year we plan to craft a journal policy requiring anti-oppressive language use (including a list of preferred terms and usages), and will integrate an explicit copyediting workflow step that checks for oppressive language. The journal will also make explicit our commitment to inclusive citational practices, and add examples to our Style Sheet that recognize a more expansive range of citation possibilities.

To help make the field of medieval and early modern literary studies more welcoming to a wider variety of voices, Early Theatre also organized an end-of-June 2021 online gathering for peer journals with shared goals for implementing anti-racist practices. Our aim was to jumpstart discussion of progress made and to brainstorm next steps for resolving challenges journals in our field might be experiencing. Attended by our editorial team as well as editors from Borrowers and Lenders, Medieval English Theatre, Renaissance Drama, ROMARD, Shakespeare, Shakespeare Bulletin, Shakespeare Quarterly, and Shakespeare Survey, this meeting took as its starting point the RaceB4Race document, ‘RaceB4Race Concrete Antiracist Gatekeeping Recommendations for Editors.’ We used break-out rooms to focus on Editorial Boards and Evaluative Criteria, the two topics that editors had identified as most pressing. We learned much from the different approaches and experiences various editors shared, and look forward to future collaboration in the coming months.”

Chris Nealon, Senior Editor for English Literary History (ELH):

“To offer an update, on our end: in the year since you contacted us at ELH, we have begun an ongoing project of diversifying our Advisory Board; we have recommitted to ensuring that every essay submitted to the journal, whatever its potential fit for us, be reviewed by two members of our in-house editorial board; and I have been emphasizing in private and public fora that the journal is committed to showcasing scholarship that taps into the exciting anti-racist and decolonial energy in the humanities today.

I should also mention that we recently accepted a piece on histories of white supremacy and homophobia in Anglo-Saxonist literary study, which we expect will generate conversation about these issues. It should be out in the coming year.”

Jane Degenhardt, General Coeditor for English Literary Renaissance:

“In response to the RaceB4Race call to action, the editors of ELR have engaged in serious reflection and discussion about its values and editorial practices. After assembling a task force to develop concrete steps, we re-evaluated our review process, our mission statement, the composition of our editorial board, and the steps that we take to actively encourage diversity among our contributors and in the scholarship that we publish. These discussions have resulted in a number of changes that we have begun to implement with our board and plan to continue to roll out over the coming year. We have written a new mission statement for our website to emphasize our commitments to diversity and transparency in our editorial practices. We have also revised our peer review form to make more explicit our criteria for evaluating essays and to draw specific attention to the importance of inclusive and diverse citational practices. We have discussed ways of ensuring a diverse pool of reviewers and attracting more scholars of color to our editorial board, a commitment that we had already begun to undertake before the RaceB4Race call to action. Finally, the editors and board of ELR have committed to ongoing conversations about all of these issues as well as to other efforts — including an open call for an upcoming special issue on race — to ensure that the journal’s commitment to change in the field continues into the future.”

Claire Fanger, Michael Ostling, and Laurel Zwissler, Co-Editors for Magic Ritual and Witchcraft:

“As a journal exploring practices and traditions often Othered within academic discourses, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft has invited a wide range of voices and disciplines since its inception. However, we realize that in past years we have done less than we could to foster a diverse pool of reviewers, to recruit new scholars from outside our existing networks, and to invite voices from communities potentially alienated by our title — that is by the ways in which application of the term ‘magic’ to BIPOC traditions and lifeways, or the accusation of ‘witchcraft’ in relation to practitioners of such lifeways, has constructed and maintained patriarchal, settler-colonial, and white-supremacist hierarchies. Therefore, in the past year we have:

  • Undertaken a major overhaul of our Editorial Board: making board membership a 5-year renewable term; increasing the diversity of the board with respect to gender, race and ethnicity, tradition or geographical region studied, and disciplinary approach;
  • Created a new journal section, ‘Discussions,’ intended both as an arena for contesting accepted categories and approaches within magic-and-witchcraft studies and as a potential entry into our journal for younger or marginalized scholars;
  • Accelerated our efforts to invite contributions that reflect histories and viewpoints of BIPOC scholars into the journal, both as authors of individual pieces and as guest editors of discussion forums and special issues.

Finally, we remain committed to soliciting feedback and engaging in self-reflection on how we can further build accessible, shared conversations and amplify under-represented voices.”

Shazia Jagot, Julie Orlemanski, and Sara Ritchey, Co-Editors for postmedieval:

RaceB4Race’s concrete antiracist gatekeeping recommendations for editors have provided essential guidance for the editorial leadership of postmedieval. These guidelines have helped shape the journal’s transition to a new editorial team and editorial board, adjustments to the peer-review process, and the journal’s wider vision for access. We’ll provide a brief discussion of these initiatives, and we look forward to pursuing more of these recommendations in the future. In keeping with the aim of lowering barriers to access to journal leadership, the journal searched for new Editors and a Managing Editor in 2020 by advertising the positions widely on social media and reaching out to organizations like RaceB4Race and Medievalists of Color; we also invited individual scholars who are working for greater equity and inclusion in medieval studies. The RaceB4Race’s guidelines were actually part of the interview process, as candidates were asked for their responses to the guidelines and what concrete steps they might take to facilitate antiracism. While we did not have a separate open call for reconstituting the editorial board, we drew from the diverse applicant pool from the editorial search to invite board members as well. When selecting the nineteen members of our freshly-constituted editorial board, we were deliberate in ensuring representation among identity backgrounds as well as in subject matter, academic status and affiliation, and the geographies where board members live and work. Board members will serve 2- or 3-year terms (potentially renewable once), and as members begin to cycle off, we plan to have an open call for nominations, as the RaceB4Race guidelines recommend. The RaceB4Race guidelines were especially helpful for revising our guidelines for peer reviewers. We insist that feedback must be humane and constructive, and we ask reviewers to evaluate whether the essay’s citational practice is antiracist and is inclusive in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, ability, discipline, and/or academic status or affiliation. Authors have the opportunity to suggest reviewers, and editors take these suggestions seriously. Finally, postmedieval continues searching for ways to be more accessible to readers and authors. We have recently built a website (link above) to provide more transparency and access; the site hosts a blog that offers further publishing opportunities. Though we are in part constrained by our for-profit publisher, the editors constantly advocate for greater accessibility for articles and issues.”

Paula Krebs, Executive Director of the Modern Language Association for Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA):

“After we announced our new policies last September, we reached out to MLA members to share the changes and solicit their contributions to the special features, with an aim to expanding the range of viewpoints and topics presented in that section of the journal — and to ensuring that each submission received thoughtful feedback and a formal decision letter from the board articulating that feedback. We welcome the opportunity to get the word out to scholars about how they can help shape the journal through this important feature, and invite you to share links to the information found on our website in your Sundial follow-up.”

Peter Kirwan, General Editor for Shakespeare Bulletin:

“The editorial team for Shakespeare Bulletin welcomes the open letter from the RaceB4Race Executive Board for structural change in scholarly publishing in the field of early modern studies. We recognize that academic gatekeeping acts as both cause and symptom of structural oppression, especially in relation to early career scholars and to scholars marginalized on account of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and other markers of identity. We further recognize that, if scholarly research is not to stagnate, journals have an important part to play in the integration and platforming of emerging and marginalized areas of study. Our ambition for Shakespeare Bulletin is for the journal to be an inclusive, anti-racist, supportive, and proactive platform for innovative research in early modern performance studies and theater history. We affirm here our commitment to nurturing, commissioning, and developing work in early modern studies that intersects with fields exploring issues of social justice — including but not limited to Critical Race Studies. In light of the recommendations made by the RaceB4Race open letter, Shakespeare Bulletin has instituted several changes to our current operating practices.

Editorial Board: We have restructured the journal’s Board and created a Terms of Reference document to make clear how the Board operates and contributes to the journal’s mission. Where previously appointments were made to a single Editorial Board for an indefinite period, we have now created two complementary boards. The Advisory Board is made up of valued, long-standing contributors to the journal who contribute to the peer review process and advise on journal policy. Members of the Editorial Board are more proactively involved in the day-to-day work of the journal, in capacities including reviewing special issue proposals and soliciting new work (especially from emergent areas). Board members are drawn from all career stages and Shakespeare Bulletin’s areas of interest, as well as from the Advisory Board. Members of the Editorial Board serve for a period of at least three years (renewable by mutual agreement). The editors of special issues are invited to contribute to the work of the Editorial Board.

Peer Review: The journal is committed to a peer review process that is efficient, supportive, constructive, and transparent, assessing articles solely on the basis of the work. We have created a document detailing the key principles to which we expect peer reviewers to adhere, which is publicly available on the journal website. The general editor takes final responsibility for ensuring that reports and decision letters adhere to the journal’s principles. In order to encourage accountability and good practice, peer reviewers will receive a copy of the decision letter sent to authors, containing the combined comments of all peer reviewers.

Transparency: At the end of each publishing year/volume, the journal will publish a report naming and thanking those who have reviewed for the journal in the past year (reviewers will have the opportunity to opt out of inclusion in this list).

Open Call and Open Access: The journal has an open call for article submissions and special issue proposals on the intersection of early modern performance studies/theater history and Critical Race Studies. The journal’s last significant cluster of essays on Shakespeare, Race, and Performance (27.3, edited by Ayanna Thompson) is an important special issue but was published more than a decade ago. Shakespeare Bulletin extends a call for new work in this area from early career and established scholars and will be actively eliciting contributions in this area. As part of this, we especially welcome submissions from BIPOC scholars and scholars from marginalized communities. Johns Hopkins University Press have agreed to make 27.3 open access on an indefinite basis to help stimulate further research in this area.”

Jeremy Lopez, General Editor for Shakespeare Quarterly:

Shakespeare Quarterly expresses its strong support for the call to action posted by the RaceB4Race collective. We reaffirm the journal’s interest in receiving, developing, and publishing work in early modern critical race studies, and encourage readers to visit the Shakespeare Quarterly website now and in the coming months to see, under the “Advance Articles” tab, current and forthcoming examples of such work. While we are clear in our commitment to seeing exciting work in this field appearing regularly on the pages of SQ, we are also delighted to announce a special issue to be published in 2023, guest-edited by Noémie Ndiaye (University of Chicago) and featuring a slate of essays by early career scholars working in the field of early modern critical race studies.

We understand that transparency and trust in the editorial process go hand in hand. Prospective contributors to SQ can find recent submission/publication statistics as well as a detailed description of editorial procedures for publication on our OUP page here. The statistics will be updated annually. We are also working with the the Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library to formalize, codify, and publish procedures for the selection of Editor(s), Associate Editors, and members of the Editorial Board. Alongside that effort, SQ will work with other leading journals in early modern studies to recommend and jointly adopt actionable editorial policies that address the specific areas of practice highlighted by the RaceB4Race collective.

While more efforts are underway to solicit and encourage submissions for publication, SQ has spearheaded the Journal Editors Meet & Greet event at the Shakespeare Association conference: this was held virtually in 2021 and will be held again in person in 2022. As well, I, in my capacity as the editor of the journal, held over a dozen virtual workshops with graduate students across North America in 2021 to discuss both submitting work to SQ and publishing in early modern studies more generally. We welcome suggestions for, and the opportunity to participate in, other such outreach events.

SQ serves the scholarly community by shaping, reflecting, and responding to areas of current interest and concern. We are eager to amplify new and diverse critical methodologies and approaches. I strongly encourage you to be in touch with members of the editorial board or to get in touch with me directly with any questions or ideas you have about publishing in the journal.

Emma Smith, General Editor for Shakespeare Survey:

“At Shakespeare Survey (Cambridge University Press) we issued a call for new Board members from the ECR and BIPOC communities. We appointed four new colleagues to the Board and introduced them in a webinar about Survey and how contributors can submit articles to us. We are developing more supportive submissions and review practices including offering workshops and ongoing feedback to junior scholars. We are implementing a diversity audit of all volumes from 75 (2022) onwards to help us understand and develop our contributor demographic. As editor I am in conversation with other journal editors about a range of issues raised in 2020 by the RaceB4Race Executive Board, including the question of anonymous peer review and its biases. And we have become much more conscious of the ongoing work and reflection that is needed to make meaningful change.”

The RaceB4Race Executive Board wants to thank all the editors who took the time to engage so thoughtfully with our initial call and to redact these notes for all to read and share. The work against gate-keeping in academic publishing continues, and we are thrilled to have more and more partners in that effort.

RaceB4Race is a collective of premodern BIPOC scholars. To read more about the symposia, partner organizations, and executive board, visit the ACMRS website here.

Engaging premodern literature, history, culture, and art to speak to contemporary social issues. Engage the past, define the future.

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ACMRS is a research center housed at Arizona State University. We support inclusive, accessible, and forward-looking scholarship in premodern studies.

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