Unpublished and be damned

Well, it’s been a funny week and indeed a funny year for the Small Farm Future publishing empire.

Having scaled back my farming activities this year in order to fight our planning application, I’ve also had more time to do a bit of writing around alternative and small scale farming systems. Encapsulated therein is the main contradiction of my life, which I fear I’ll never resolve: as a grower and small-scale farmer, I love producing useful stuff for people to eat, working outdoors and figuring out as best I can good practical ways of trying to farm – against which all the chatter and opinion in the media frequently seems dispiriting and irrelevant. But as a sometime university academic, or ‘clever interlexyouwell’ as Tom put it in a recent comment, writing and analysing stuff and trying to make the case for better ways of living and better ways of farming out in the wider world also seems worthwhile (particularly on days when I’m digging parsnips out of the snow…)

So, which way to go? On the upside this year, my article about our veg box scheme ‘Kings and commoners: agroecology meets consumer culture’ has been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Consumer Culture (more on that in another post), and the article I wrote on quinoa that I mentioned in last week’s post has gone viral, or at least gone biodiverse, having been the subject of a blog post by Jeremy Cherfas on the excellent Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.

On the downside, I’ve toiled long and hard this year on a journal article about perennial staple crops emerging from an earlier post I wrote on the topic, and I’ve just heard this week that it’s been rejected by a supposedly multi-disciplinary sustainable agriculture journal that I will refrain from naming. Now, I’m not one to whinge (OK, that’s wholly untrue – but the whingeing that you’re about to witness has a higher purpose, so please read on) but for me the experience raises interesting questions about the way forward.

Peer reviewed publication is often held up as a kind of gold standard for credible research and analysis – as per George Monbiot’s endless and quite valid complaints about the way that crappy climate change denying opinions are often equated in the media with proper climatology research. But I think anyone who’s submitted themselves to the curious business of peer-reviewed publication can attest what a capricious process it is. Referees’ reports are often replete with the same kind of personal hobbyhorses, low insults, specialist arrogance and bizarre misunderstandings that you’ll find down the pub or down the blogosphere – and suffer from the same drawbacks of anonymity as the latter.

I wish I could publish some referees’ comments from a selection of my papers to illustrate the point, but unfortunately they seem to be copyrighted for no good reason that I can discern. Suffice to say that the process as I’ve experienced it is a complete lottery – I’ve won a medal (yes, seriously) for one paper I wrote that was a complete load of b______s and yet my undeniably superb analysis of perennial staples is now languishing on the editor’s spike.

Anyway, the point of all this really is just to ask myself where to go from here. Now that I’m no longer an academic, I gain no career advancement or financial advantage from writing papers in academic journals. But I suppose I still implicitly harbour the notion that for all the absurdities of peer review, if I get stuff published in them it gives me some kind of status and self-respect which is unattainable if I just bang out my worthless opinions into the blogosphere like everyone else and their dog…and probably a wider readership too. On the other hand, now that I’ve attained the requisite bureaucratic sanction to start farming again (more on that in another other post) pretty much simultaneously with the journal rejection, perhaps the message from the gods is that I should focus on the practical farming instead of trying to be an intellectual. OK, so here’s my plan. I’ll have one more shot at getting the perennial paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. If it fails I shall publish it and be damned on this blog and then turn away forever from academic publishing. Let the blogosphere be my witness – henceforth I shall dedicate myself to practical farming and use this blog as my publishing outlet, where my words of wisdom can jostle for attention with all the YouTube memes, dating websites and Facebook updates in a cold, uncaring world. But if you’d like to comment on any of my posts, so much the better. Please…

5 thoughts on “Unpublished and be damned

  1. “…personal hobbyhorses, low insults, specialist arrogance and bizarre misunderstandings ”

    Peer review I consider a sort of deregulated re-distributed democracy. There is a more than even chance that something peer reviewed is not total rubbish, so therefore it is a worthwhile exercise. It is much better than the autocratic decision making exercised by editors and other types of owner. The traits exhibited above are universal ones and are found amongst committee members everywhere.

    • Yep, I reckon I’d go along with that. But I think I really have to try to wean myself off wanting to write stuff for academic journals, so no more comments in their defence, please… It’s a shame there seem to be so few other publishing options around.

  2. Having your character challenged both directly, or indirectly (as is the case with your paper) is never a comfortable feeling. You seem wise, and I am sure you know that who you are is not what you are, and is not what you do. You are not your work, you are more than just some human.

    I have felt for some time that science has lost it’s way. It is becoming a dogma that pushes ideologies. It should be pursuing truth, and not overstating it’s observations. I also believe that there is no room for vanity and arrogance in scientific pursuits.

    Not sure how this ended for you, but hope you found the truth/ answers you were seeking.


    • Thanks for that – as it turned out, the paper was later published by the journal ‘Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems’ (see publications page and the ‘Annuals v perennials’ page). Maybe I shouldn’t have written that blog post in the heat of rejection! But it’s not so easy getting peer-reviewed papers published when you don’t have an academic base, and the referee’s comments were darned annoying!

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