13 May 2016

Debate on Amending Editorial Practice of The Journal of Museum Ethnography to Incorporate Partial Peer-Reviewing of Contributions


In the summer of 2015, a small number of MEG members independently approached the Committee to enquire why the Journal of Museum Ethnography is not peer-reviewed like many academic journals. This is not the first time that the matter has arisen, and the Committee are keen to establish a policy on this which will resolve the issue for some years.

The Committee discussed the possibility of the Journal becoming partly or wholly peer-reviewed, and – realising that the issue strongly divided opinion among themselves - resolved to organise a debate on the issue at our most recent Annual General Meeting on Tuesday 19th April 2016. Conference delegates participated energetically in the debate and the position statements for and against are reproduced here for all MEG members to read.

We are now asking all members of MEG to vote on this issue, by emailing secretary@museumethnographersgroup.org with the subject line ‘Peer Review’ and either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in the body text. In this case, a ‘No’ vote will indicate your wish for JME to continue as it is without the peer-reviewing of any contributions. A ‘Yes’ vote will indicate your wish for JME’s editors to initiate a practice of peer-review for some journal content, likely to commence with JME 31. Members should feel free to express any further opinions on the matter alongside placing their vote. The results of the vote will be publicised after voting closes on 30th June 2016.      

Position Statements in support of a ‘No’ Vote
  1. Sarah Byrne, Current Editor of JME, Horniman Museum.

When I took over the editorship from Jeremy Coote, one of my first questions as someone who had recently been a funded researcher in the university sector was to eagerly ask ‘Why is JME not peer reviewed?’ At the time I understood in theory Jeremy’s position about fostering a more open forum for ideas and debates and research within the museum sector. And the important role JME had to play in allowing people to publish good papers in a journal with a solid reputation who might traditionally shy away from the peer-reviewed world. Not that I think JME has suffered over the years from a lack of papers from academics and people who also publish in higher ranking journals. The key thing about JME though is that our contributors are a varied bunch. I think that is one of its strengths.

Whilst I am totally sympathetic to the Research Excellence Framework issues faced by colleagues in the third level sector and constant pressure to publish in high-ranking journals, I have to say that over the last two years of editing JME I have, through experience, come to agree with Jeremy that JME becoming peer-reviewed is not the best thing for its future.

What Is JME?

JME effectively is a conference proceedings journal with added extras (Research Articles/Reports and Reviews). Not to state the obvious but we are totally dependent on what comes out of the conference each year. Some years might produce enough papers that would be good enough to get through peer review- other years it may not. Take the scenario that only 3 of 5 written papers submitted pass peer review. Or the corrections are too big for an author to manage in the time-frame. As the conferences are thematic we cannot necessarily include a late reworked paper in a later issue. How do we then proceed in order to get an issue of JME ready in time for following year’s conference?

In addition, as we don’t have a policy of open submission, we do not have an active pool of papers to draw from if a paper is unsuccessful. An argument could be put forward that the Research Articles section could be peer reviewed- here we do have an open submission policy. On paper this could work (although I cannot say I know of another journal that is part peer reviewed). I feel this would put people whose conference paper is of a good enough quality to pass peer review at a disadvantage. Why publish in JME in a non-peer reviewed section when a peer-reviewed section exists? I believe this could create animosity and discontent amongst our colleagues who submit to JME and need REF points. It might also mean people put less effort into turning their conference paper into well written papers.

If JME papers are to become peer reviewed the whole structure of how we operate and what we produce would need to change. Our current encouraging stance regarding young researchers and those of a less academic background in the sector would inevitably have to change. This could put people at a disadvantage for being selected to speak at the conference, let alone publish in the journal. This is not I believe in the spirit of MEG.

How Would Peer Review Work?

Getting articles peer-reviewed is far from a straight forward business. There is substantial effort in getting and indeed keeping appropriate reviewers. It is very time-consuming and it would slow down the publication process greatly.

Most peer reviewed journals have a team of paid staff that make the system work. Indeed peer review is the reason why you see so many journals being taken over by central publishers- they have a quick and more central system of managing the peer review process.

If It’s not broke, don’t fix It!

Jeremy did so much work getting JME to the professional state it is in. It has a very strong house style and in my opinion is produced to a really high standard.

People understand that JME isn’t peer reviewed but I get the impression that many people choose to publish in JME for reasons other than REF points- especially because they know the journal is circulated amongst a large group of their peers. There is so much competition between high-ranking journals, something I am not sure we want to be part of. JME currently has a solid niche. It works well for the sector, it’s a space for colleagues and MEG members to publish quite easily on a wide range of projects and research UK museum ethnography.

More established researchers may well save their best ideas- most creative use of theory and method for the peer review journals but that’s fine by me! JME does not need to be ground-breaking- it needs to be informative and interesting. Once we continue to have well written papers that give new insights into the history meaning, use and significance of ethnographic collections in the UK (and sometimes abroad) then I believe we are succeeding.

My initial intention was to present a more balanced opinion – weighing up the positives and negatives but in thinking through this- I position myself as opposed to the change. That said, I am open to all ideas people may have and understand it is up to MEG members to decide. I am not resistant to change and indeed one change I could see for JME is that it becomes even more democratic- following Open Source models etc. (not now but maybe in a few years).

The key things we need to ask ourselves on this issue are: Why do we want JME to change? And who is the change for?
  1. Jeremy Coote, Former Editor of JME, Pitt Rivers Museum.

In the ten years (11 issues) that I was Editor, it was always my aim to try to make JME as accommodating as possible to the widest range of contributors, while ensuring academic and scholarly standards. I have never seen JME as an academic journal, serving the academic community. In my view it is and should be a professional journal, serving the needs and interests of the membership. It is, however, always in danger of becoming too academic. If anything, in my view, MEG needs to think less about making JME appeal more to academics through becoming a refereed journal and to think more about appealing to the wider membership (and non-members working in museums whom we would like to join us) through publishing less academic (though always respectable) contributions. It should also not be forgotten that the refereeing process can be very time-consuming for the editorial team, who already do a fantastic job for little recompense. As I remember it, Anita Herle adopted the referred approach for JME17 and found it so time-consuming that the committee agreed not to repeat the experiment.
  1. Alison Petch, Former Chair of MEG, Pitt Rivers Museum.

One of the reasons that have always been persuasive in deterring refereeing for all articles, in my opinion, is that refereeing may well be off-putting for members (who have written interesting articles) who wish to submit. The journal in the end is a service to MEG members, not to the wider academic community. It should have the highest standards of editing and writing but it should also reflect its many members and their interests. This includes people working in academia but it also includes volunteers and staff working at local authority, private, university and national museums. Not all of these people are forced to jump through academic hoops but all of them probably have an interesting article or two they could write which would inform MEG members.

If we start refereeing I would argue that we are likely to receive many more submissions from non-members who require brownie points for their academic work. I have no objection to non-members publishing in the journal though I think they should be encouraged to join. But I believe non-members contributions should be outweighed by MEG members who have lots of things to say and share (some of whom will also be academics). If refereeing puts the non-academically minded members off submitting then I think that is a very sad thing and it diminishes JME. I have never heard anyone suggest that JME throughout its history has not been of the highest possible standards both in editing and in writing. Why bother to change a working formula for the benefit of only a few members?
  1. Inbal Livne, Current Assistant Editor of JME, Powell-Cotton Museum

Whilst most members associated with MEG may be highly qualified and capable of producing papers suitable for peer review, for many of the members, the particulars of their situation make it impractical. Few of us are any longer in the privileged position to be specialists in our fields. As generalists, we require more time, energy and access to suitable materials in order to collate well referenced papers that could be put forward for peer review. The nearest places to me with good quality libraries, with sufficient material on ethnography are in London - it just isn't practical to access them as part of my working week. Nor is my museum in the financial position to subscribe to web based services such as JSTOR, which would at least lessen the need to travel. It seems to me that unless you work for a national museum, or one connected with a university, you will suffer this problem to some extent.

In addition, I agree with the points laid out by other MEG members, particularly those concerning the ROLE of MEG and therefore of the Journal. I do not see why a body designed to promote good professional practice and one that promotes rigorous academic work need to be mutually exclusive, but I do not feel the latter should outweigh the former.

Position Statements in support of a ‘Yes’ Vote

    1. Claire Wintle, Former Secretary of MEG, University of Brighton.

I argue the case here for creating a section of JME that is peer reviewed (i.e. conference papers and/or research articles, but not reports and reviews). Since I have known it, JME has always been a highly engaging publication designed to record the professional activities, ideas and perspectives of those working with world cultures collections. It publishes important research to the highest editorial standards. Allocating a proportion of JME to research that has been peer-reviewed would do a number of things: first, and most simply, the status of a ‘peer-reviewed’ publication would help a wider research community to recognise the quality of JME – and the research of its contributors – as it currently stands. Peer review would also create a series of further benefits for MEG members:

Peer review does not necessarily mean changing the style or purpose of articles submitted to JME. Peer review can function differently for different journals and if some JME articles were to be reviewed this would not necessarily mean that JME would become an exclusionary, more ‘academic’ journal. Properly briefed referees would – as befitting the journal of MEG as a Subject Specialist Network – act as supportive commentators or ‘critical friends’ that could add useful perspectives and advice to their colleagues’ work and ideas on particular issues and themes. One suggestion is that all full papers be refereed, but a non-peer-reviewed short report section would continue to allow those who do not want to engage with this process in any form to contribute. But to reiterate, peer review should be seen as a supportive process.  Indeed, I would suggest that referees be drawn from the membership itself: the MEG committee have had a number of discussions in the past about how to further engage the membership in the work of MEG; drawing upon MEG members in this way seems a great opportunity to do just this. This manner of peer review would also reflect the democratic ethos of MEG, allowing a range of professionals to support the work of the editorial team.

The MEG membership includes many academics, PhD students and museum professionals working at institutions that are subject to the Research Excellence Framework (e.g. Cambridge MAA) or other research strategies which require publication in peer-reviewed journals (such as the BM). Indeed, the categories of ‘academic’ and ‘professional’ are not exclusive and individuals that work in both HE and museums throughout their careers (and even at the same time) are not unusual. A peer-reviewed section of JME would solicit more contributions since it would allow all members – including these individuals and groups – to meet their professional obligations while still publishing in the journal that helps them to connect with their colleagues and that represents their sector.

  1. Andy Mills, Current Secretary of MEG, University of Glasgow.

My personal concerns about the issue of JME becoming partly peer-reviewed don’t focus on why we might choose to change its current editorial practice. Rather, I am concerned that our Journal isn’t peer-reviewed; I was genuinely surprised back in 2007 to learn that it isn’t, and I am concerned about the message that sends to the world about the Journal, the Museum Ethnographers Group for which it serves as the primary durable record, and museum ethnography as a sub-discipline.

In previous years, when this issue arose, it was argued by some that the Museum Ethnographers Group is not an ‘academic’ group and therefore the Journal of Museum Ethnography should not adhere to ‘academic’ criteria of quality control. I take another view, that MEG is a ‘broad church’ including both academic and non-academic membership. Our ‘new blood’ membership is almost universally qualified to postgraduate level in Museum Studies, Museum Anthropology or World Art Studies. Staff-members of the university museums have played a formative and often dominant role in the life and direction of MEG. Moreover, much ‘academic’ research into Ethnography / World Cultures collections is produced by the curatorial and collections management staff of national and local authority museums – for whom there is no lesser expectation and responsibility to publish at international standards of quality. Peer review is the only widely-recognised method of pursuing those standards.

When any of us needs to conduct background research into the collections we care for, we are consuming peer-reviewed publications as standard practice. Few of us with the inclination to present our research at the MEG conference (or any other) and have it published in JME are unfamiliar with the forms and quality standards of peer-reviewed articles. However, my personal view is that – to all intents and purposes, and from the reader’s viewpoint – JME actually is an ‘academic’ journal, whatever some might argue. Take down and look over any issue published in the last ten years: The majority of papers address highly specialist topics in museology, world art history, material culture studies, or the history of collections; they employ the ‘academic’ system of referencing to a broader body of literature; they systematically offer a central argument by marshalling evidence in a coherent way towards a set of summary conclusions; they emerge from a themed annual conference. These are the basic features of academic journal publishing, and so MEG is actually publishing an academic journal without adhering to the internationally-accepted standards of quality control for academic journals. If we want JME to take an explicitly non-academic format, we shouldn’t be publishing it in an academic format, but rather something more journalistic of wider public relevance. None of our members can believe that museum ethnography is somehow less rigorous or substantial than museology, anthropology or archaeology themselves? Why, then, are we allowing ourselves to shy away from the same quality assurance methods employed in their publications?

It is undeniable that introducing peer review into the editorial process would generate more organisational work for the editorial team and require tighter submission deadlines for contributors. Previous editors and committee members have formerly argued that the process of peer review might intimidate junior members and discourage them from submitting papers to conference through fear of having their submissions rejected. It is the membership of MEG itself, however – our peers - who would provide the core population of reviewers. As a result, it is hardly as if peer review would force an alien system of values onto the contents of JME. More importantly, a reviewer recommending outright rejection is either a mark of a seriously flawed piece, or the reviewer’s unresolvable bias – which the good editors we have at JME would easily differentiate.

Some people have argued that JME doesn’t need to be peer reviewed because it is primarily intended for its membership. It’s very doubtful that the membership of MEG is greater than the total readership of the JME. I also don’t believe that our members expect a lower level of quality control from the publication that their membership subscriptions support than the other journal articles they download from the internet or find in their local library. Furthermore, in recent years, a major achievement of the Committee was to arrange for the back catalogue of JME to become globally available through JSTOR. We are now writing to the world. Given the global coverage of MEG’s interests, the idea that people from the source communities all over the world who created the artefacts we write about, are for some reason not very carefully and critically reading what we write about them is unsupportable. For this reason more than any other, we owe it to our cultural stakeholders and ourselves to pursue the highest standards of quality control over what we publish.

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