An Author’s Encounter with the British Journal of Social Work

In spring 2011, I submitted a manuscript for publication to the British Journal of Social Work.  My background suggested a reasonable likelihood that this manuscript would be publishable.  I had published two other peer-reviewed articles in a prominent social work journal, and had also published in peer-reviewed journals in other fields.  In fact, I was a peer reviewer, myself, at three social work journals.  I had also had some manuscripts rejected, and had read those reviewers’ comments on what they liked and disliked.  In addition, during my years of master’s and PhD study, I had accumulated a collection of several thousand articles on various aspects of social work, and had read portions or complete texts of virtually all of them.  Generally, then, I was reasonably well acquainted with what counts as a publishable manuscript in social work.

The manuscript I submitted in spring 2011 did not receive serious consideration by BJSW.  When I inquired more closely about that, the editor declined to reply.  Therefore, I have written an open letter to BJSW.  This post presents that letter.

Pending further insight, it appears that the editor’s decision arose from a certain trait of social work academia.  To understand that trait, it may be helpful to provide a contrast against business school academia.

In business education, there is a healthy critical ambiance.  Well-known publications (e.g., Forbes) regularly criticize what is taught, or the way in which it is taught, in schools of business.  Leading business schools are highly visible and, as such, are regularly faulted for various real or perceived errors in what they teach.  While criticism can be unpleasant on an individual level, on an institutional level it is a vital means of keeping important institutions on track.  This is, indeed, one of the valuable contributions provided by a free press.

So it is dismaying that some fields, including social work, operate as relatively unnoticed backwaters, where critical thinking can be quite unwelcome.  In such an environment, strange and unrealistic ideas and attitudes can take root.  And that is unfortunate, because — unlike the world of business — the world of social work is heavily oriented toward disadvantaged individuals and groups.  The clients of social workers, quite often, are people who lack the knowledge, money, and other resources necessary to protect themselves.  In such a world, superficial niceness goes unquestioned even when real abuse is being perpetrated (see e.g., Leslie Margolin’s Under the Cover of Kindness).

The point is that social work journals broadly fail to enforce standards within social work academia.  They do have their peer review processes, but those processes do not apply when, as in this case, the editor prevents an article from even making it to the reviewers.

*  *  *  *  *

An Open Letter
to the British Journal of Social Work

Dear BJSW:

I am the author of a manuscript I submitted to you on March 4, 2011 for peer review and possible publication.  I am now writing to you about the way this manuscript was handled.  I am writing to you in this open letter format because your webpage does not name a managing editor, ombudsman, or other contact person for issues of this nature, and also because this letter raises issues of interest to the social work academic community.

When I submitted the manuscript, you promptly responded with an email message notifying me that my manuscript “will shortly be sent to two independent peer reviewers for consideration for publication in The British Journal of Social Work.”  That email stated that this was contingent only upon “meeting certain criteria, such as being fully anonymised,” which are presented in your instructions for authors.  My manuscript did fully comply with those criteria, and no question has been raised in that regard.

Nearly seven weeks passed after I submitted that manuscript.  Then, on April 20, I received a message from Dr. Jim Campbell, co-editor of BJSW, stating that my paper “has now been reviewed by two editors” but was being rejected.  Further communication on that day confirmed that Dr. Campbell and his co-editor decided that, in my case, they would not bother to send the manuscript out for peer review, but would reject it themselves.

In making that decision, these co-editors violated your Code of Practice, which specifies that the co-editors “are responsible for securing timely, independent and anonymous peer review from suitably qualified reviewers … of all manuscripts submitted to the journal” (emphasis added).  When I questioned this decision, Dr. Campbell replied as follows:

As editors we did not send you paper for review – this is something we sometimes do if we feel papers are not directly relevant to the readership of the journal, two editors were involved in this decision. Is that ok?

This reply raises, first, the question of what purpose the two editors serve.  It has sometimes been remarked that if we both agree, one of us is superfluous.  That sentiment seems relevant here.  When two editors concur that they can just disregard their employer’s formal Code of Practice – in a social work journal, of all things – it does seem reasonable to ask whether the Journal should be seeking co-editors who do take that Code seriously, and who are able to think independently when a colleague proposes to disregard it.

Dr. Campbell was simply incorrect when he claimed that my paper was “not directly relevant to the readership of the journal.”  In a view he conveyed to me that day (i.e., April 20), he said he felt that my paper was oriented toward “the area of ethics and higher education” in social work.  I promptly reminded him that, according to its self-description, the British Journal of Social Work “covers every aspect of social work.”

In case Dr. Campbell had forgotten his own editorial decisions from the past year, I reminded him of a half-dozen recent BJSW articles that had addressed precisely those areas of ethics and education.  I asked why he was singling out my article for arbitrary rejection.  After all, as I reminded him, the question of relevance to readers is customarily to be decided by peer reviewers, not by editors.

As Dr. Campbell observed, among other things my manuscript does address unethicality in social work education.  It seemed ironic that a manuscript on unethicality would itself be handled in an unethical manner – given that the Journal’s Code conveys a promise to authors and an expectation of appropriate behavior by editors.

When an editor decides to suppress research into unethicality within the profession – to prevent reviewers from seeing it – it certainly appears that the editor is corruptly facilitating that unethicality.  One can fairly ask why he would do this – whom he may have contacted regarding this manuscript, for example, and whom he might have been trying to protect.

What is even more remarkable is that Dr. Campbell was not moved when I presented these thoughts to him on April 20.  He was not merely suppressing an article about unethicality; he was confident that he could admit doing so, and would be entirely protected.

Part of Dr. Campbell’s behavior is no doubt attributable to mere editorial hubris.  Academics survive by their ability to publish.  They dare not question an editor, lest s/he retaliate by rejecting – or by choosing peer reviewers who will reject – everything else the academic ever submits.  In other words, a person in Dr. Campbell’s position may come to assume, over a period of years, that s/he can do whatever s/he pleases, rules be damned.

So when Dr. Campbell asks me, “Is that OK?” perhaps he means to be asking whether I would dare to make an issue of it.  One wonders:  how many other manuscripts – good manuscripts, perhaps even profession-changing manuscripts – have been rejected because Dr. Campbell felt like suppressing them?

But editorial hubris does not entirely explain the matter.  This went beyond mere caprice.  Dr. Campbell affirmatively misrepresented the situation.  As I say, he claimed that my manuscript was not within the Journal’s scope, when he plainly knew that his statement was false — that the topics he named were the focus of many Journal articles that he, himself, had put into print.

I asked Dr. Campbell about these things.  Why did it take seven weeks to decide that my article was so irrelevant that it should not even be sent to reviewers?  The editors surely reviewed it within the first few days, as they must do with all manuscripts, so as to get them out and back from reviewers in a timely fashion.  They were not just getting around to it for the first time, seven weeks after submission.

In other words, given the Journal‘s initial statement that it would be sending the article out for review promptly, and no interim communication to the contrary, it does seem that this article may in fact have been reviewed, and that reviewers may have approved it or had interesting things to say about it, but that Dr. Campbell decided to override them.

Alternately, if he really did decide not to let reviewers see what I had written, the passage of so many weeks seems to suggest that something further was taking place behind the scenes.

My manuscript contained implicit criticisms of certain processes at the school of social work at Indiana University, and at other schools that conduct themselves as IU did.  Dr. Campbell certainly knew that I was talking about IU; the manuscript submission process required me to disclose which school I was affiliated with.  I do not know whether Dr. Campbell has personal buddies on IU’s faculty; I cannot say whether, perhaps, he sent the manuscript to one or more of my professors there.  Such interactions, and accompanying discussions, could explain the seven-week delay.

Although I am now presenting such questions in summary form, one after another, my message to Dr. Campbell was actually phrased more agreeably.  It closed with these words:

If I have misunderstood any of these matters, please set me straight.  I sent my manuscript to you seeking publication, not argument.  I do continue to welcome open participation in the publication process by any relevant parties.  But in the final analysis, I have submitted a relevant, publishable manuscript, and I am behaving reasonably in expecting that it will be submitted for fair review by duly selected reviewers.

I think you can imagine, then, that I was quite disappointed when Dr. Campbell simply ignored that last message.  He did not consider it necessary to address my concerns.  Maybe he had not expected to be questioned, or maybe he just did not care.

In any event, Dr. Campbell has breached the promise made to me by the Journal – that my article would be reviewed by peers – and, in doing so, has drawn attention to the Journal‘s practices and to certain ethics-related concerns discussed in my manuscript.  By using its prominence to squelch discussion of significant problems in social work education, BJSW becomes part of the problem rather than a guide toward solutions.

I am sorry that the Journal broke its promise to me.  I am also sorry that the Journal did not consider it necessary to give authors like me any real recourse in the event of editorial misbehavior.  In your practices, it seems, we are not worth the trouble.  I believe BJSW can do better than this.

Sincerely,

Ray Woodcock

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