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

In spring 2011, I submitted a manuscript for publication to the Journal of Social Work Education.  The editor of JSWE at that time was Lorraine Gutiérrez, a professor at the school of social work (SSW) at the University of Michigan.  This post provides critical commentary on the editorial processes taken by JSWE in response to my manuscript.

I contacted JSWE because I felt that the manuscript was important and that it deserved attention by a major journal.  Of course, many authors feel the same way.  Within the limitations of print media, not all deserving manuscripts can be published.  The question posed here is whether manuscripts — mine, as a case in point — at least receive appropriate consideration, free of bias and with due regard to the Journal‘s responsibilities to the profession.

The CSWE Dimension

For purposes of the social work profession as a whole, the concern about fair treatment of manuscripts is that social workers should be provided with the best available knowledge.  The selection of articles for publication should not be skewed by ideology, such that inferior science or unrealistic beliefs are promoted just because they say what the editor or the publisher wants people to hear.  Nor should editorial decisions be distorted by gender bias, personal dislike, or conflict of interest — to cite a few behaviors commonly considered inappropriate in editorial and peer review processes (see Souder, 2011).

Of course, it is not feasible to look into an editor’s mind and know what goes on there.  Behavior is often the best available indicator.  This attention to behavior is why people in a professional position of casting judgment on others are commonly expected to avoid even the appearance of bias (e.g., Diamond, 2005, p. 19).

Unfortunately, it is presently impossible for the editor of JSWE to avoid the appearance of bias.  JSWE is published by the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE).  CSWE chooses the editor of JSWE.  And CSWE has deep interests in the social work profession.

Regrettably, according to Bruce Thyer of Florida State (2010, p. 185), the editor of JSWE is chosen on the basis of “patronage, personal relationships, favoritism and political correctness.”  This is different from choosing an editor based upon integrity and scientific competence.

Thyer gives an illustration of how a given CSWE selection process might work.  He describes an occasion when someone at CSWE asked whether he would like to be on CSWE’s board of directors.  He states that matters were arranged so that his opponent in the election would be someone who had no chance of winning.  He asks, “Could this be called a fair election, governed by genuinely democratic processes?  Of course not” (p. 176).  In other words, there are indications that CSWE may sometimes manipulate circumstances, so as to create the appearance that appropriate procedures are being followed when, in fact, the outcome is predetermined.

Obviously, the process described by Thyer could result in the selection of board members who are strong in political connections but weak in research competence.  There are indications that such a situation has developed in fact.  Based on an analysis of publication records and other credentials, Stoesz and Karger (2009, p. 105) reach this conclusion:  “If board members were up for promotion and tenure at a university requiring six SSCI articles, 80% of the CSWE board would have been terminated.”  Under such circumstances, one can imagine a deliberate decision to bring in someone like Thyer, so as to manufacture a superficial impression of organizational research competence.

When people choose career paths that are not heavy on research, it does not mean they are stupid.  It may mean, however, that they do not prioritize research — either the doing of it, or the application of its discoveries.  It would not be surprising if politically oriented individuals at CSWE tend to compartmentalize research as a sort of activity, as opposed to treating research as the primary guide of policy.  There is, in other words, a question of whether research steers politics at CSWE, or whether the situation is actually the reverse.

CSWE describes itself as follows (emphasis added):

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is a nonprofit national association representing more than 2,500 individual members, as well as graduate and undergraduate programs of professional social work education. Founded in 1952, this partnership of educational and professional institutions, social welfare agencies, and private citizens is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation [CHEA] as the sole accrediting agency for social work education in this country.

In that quote, I have highlighted two functions:  representing and accrediting.  In its own words, that is, CSWE represents the interests of SSWs while simultaneously accrediting them.  It is not clear how this is possible.  According to CHEA, an accreditor must strive to advance academic quality.  In this role, CSWE is expected to serve as a “reliable authority” on academic quality, sufficient to justify the many millions of dollars in governmental grants, student loan financing, and other benefits available to accredited educational institutions (Eaton, 2012, p. 79).

The accreditation role is one of stringent attention to quality.  That role is plainly being neglected when SSWs (even those located in prestigious universities) are accepting the large majority of MSW applicants, and when vast numbers of MSW graduates are not achieving their original career objectives (see Hood, 2012).

Stoesz, Karger, and Carrilio (2010, p. 32) put the situation plainly.  For many years, universities were adding SSWs at a rapid pace, vastly increasing the demand for students who would draw upon federal funds to pay for ultimately unprofitable educations.  During those years, CSWE played the part of cheerleader:

CSWE continued its unchecked accreditation of social work programs.  The result was of direct benefit to CSWE since much of its revenues were derived from fees paid by social work programs it had accredited.

In other words, CSWE has financial and other incentives to accredit as many SSWs as possible.  In its 2009 tax filing, CSWE reported that membership and accreditation fees ($3.2 million) accounted for 75% of its program service revenues ($4.3 million).  (It is not clear, at this writing, why CSWE’s most recent IRS Form 990, available through the Economic Research Institute and GuideStar, is from the 2009 tax year.)  Aside from program services, CSWE’s only other significant source of revenue was government grants and other donations ($1.4 million).

Higher revenues mean more clout.  CSWE uses some of that money from its member schools to hire professional lobbyists “to promote the profession and social work education in federal legislation.”  That sort of activity may be appropriate for a representative function.  It is not appropriate for an accrediting function.  In the latter, the government has already decided what it wants to see in education; CSWE is, in effect, a contractor hired to insure that the government is getting what it is paying for.  One should be concerned if, say, a military contractor, hired to produce a fighter jet, uses some of the funds to influence Defense Department officials to switch to a different kind of jet, one that defense officials have already rejected but that the military contractor would prefer to produce.

Higher revenues from CSWE member schools also mean higher salaries for key people.  That same IRS Form 990 states that, in 2009, CSWE’s top three employees received salaries and other compensation totaling more than a half-million dollars, with well over $250,000 going to its executive director alone.  Certain benefits, travel expenses, and other perquisites would be added to these amounts.  This is about as lucrative as it gets in “nonprofit,” “public interest” social work.

How many chief executives types, motivated to climb, achieve, and acquire, are going to restrain themselves to promote quality by cutting out, say, the bottom 25% of their palpably noncompetitive member programs?  There is precious little to persuade such individuals to behave thus, and scant evidence that many have done so.  In other words, something important is missing from the present structure of higher education quality control; and social work education, led by CSWE, has been exploiting the resulting loophole.  This is the nature of the organizational ambiance in which JSWE operates.

Editor and Reviewers

Dr. Gutiérrez rejected the manuscript that I submitted to JSWE.  As I have come to appreciate, JSWE has declined to publish manuscripts that would identify significant problems in a specific SSW, or even those that are sharply critical of CSWE’s performance in general.  Some such manuscripts have instead been published in Research on Social Work Practice.  Dr. Gutiérrez explained her rejection with these words:

This paper focuses on a very significant topic for social work education and many elements of this paper are quite interesting.  However, the single case, and very specific, approach taken in this article are not appropriate for a general article in this journal.  The critiques also identify additional problems with this paper.

Of course, Dr. Gutiérrez examines manuscripts to determine their general suitability, before requiring reviewers to waste time and before obliging authors to wait for an extended period, for reviews of patently unpublishable manuscripts.  A paper on aircraft design, no matter how well researched and written, will not be sent to reviewers at JSWE.  That is, Dr. Gutiérrez surely saw what kind of manuscript I had submitted, back in April 2011.  If she, herself, had felt that a “single case, and very specific, approach” was “not appropriate” for JSWE, she would have returned it to me at that point.

It is possible that Dr. Gutiérrez already knew, in April 2011, that she would not be publishing my manuscript.  In that case, it is not clear why she would have sent it out for review.  One possibility is that she did a poor job of skimming it preliminarily.  Another possibility is that she wasn’t sure.  Her words do not acknowledge any uncertainty, however.  She seems to have reached what she considers an obvious conclusion.

A third possibility is that Dr. Gutiérrez sent the manuscript out for review in order to reduce its likelihood of being published elsewhere.  Authors are expected to submit to one journal at a time.  As long as this critical manuscript was being held at JSWE, it could not be considered for publication elsewhere.  There are some indications (below) that JSWE did attempt to hold it for as long as possible.  This explanation would also explain why the reviewers did such a poor job:  they may have been asked to provide some semblance of a review, with notice that the editor had already decided against it.

An alternate theory, more charitable to Dr. Gutiérrez, would be that the words quoted above were intended to summarize what the reviewers were telling her, and did not necessarily state her own views.  The problem remains, though, that she had to know these words were false.  As pointed out in an accompanying post that discusses the reviews (what Dr. Gutiérrez here calls the “critiques”), the Journal publishes many single-case research reports, along with opinion and experience pieces that are not research at all.  Moreover, as illustrated in that other post, those articles are often visibly linked to a specific school or other setting.  So specificity per se was not really the issue.

Assuming Dr. Gutiérrez’s sincerity, the explanation would seem to be that she felt the article was potentially publishable, but had to acquiesce when the reviewers insisted it was not — even though their reasons were specious.  This interpretation seems unlikely because, after all, the words quoted above do not put the entire conclusion on the reviewers.  In those words, Dr. Gutiérrez says that the reviews “identify additional problems” beyond what appears to be her own view.

In short, the available information raises a serious question of whether Dr. Gutiérrez rejected the manuscript for reasons that she knew were false, after three months of inappropriate delay.  A definitive answer to that question would require information that I do not have.

Opportunities Implicit in This Manuscript

The words of Dr. Gutiérrez, quoted above, could be reworked into a true statement.  She could have said that CSWE would simply not allow publication of a paper criticizing one of its member schools.  The focus there would be, not on some imagined impropriety in the manuscript itself, but rather on the self-censorship that she had to practice at the Journal.

Of course, such a statement would have entailed an implicit admission that, in her role at JSWE, she occasionally became aware of abuses like those described in the manuscript, and yet that she was doing nothing to address them nor to notify others about them.  Such a statement would also have highlighted the growing impression that CSWE is a troubled and troubling organization.  (See e.g., the January 2009 issue of Research on Social Work Practice.)

In times of change in higher education, it would seem advisable for CSWE not to be too rigidly attached to dysfunctional arrangements, whether at affiliated organizations (e.g., JSWE) or at member schools (e.g., the SSW at Indiana University (IUSSW), where I was enrolled).  As illustrated in the present case, such dysfunctionality can contribute to an ambiance of censorship protecting corruption.  The “too screwed-up to talk about” model does not seem very well suited to the present world.  It surely cannot do much good for the reputation of the social work profession.

A more prudent approach would emphasize staying ahead of problematic situations like the one identified in my manuscript.  JSWE could play a valuable role in such situations by seeking creative ways in which to address emergent issues in social work education.

There are various ways to do this.  A pair of recent articles in JSWE illustrates one approach.  The lead author of the first of those two articles was one of Dr. Gutiérrez’s colleagues at the University of Michigan.  In that article, Dessel, Bolen, and Shepardson (2011) disputed criticisms of social work presented by David Hodge, a well-known Christian social work researcher.  The journal then invited a reply from Hodge (2011).

Of course, journals often publish such exchanges between opposing views on various topics.  There is no insistence, in such exchanges, that either side take a completely unbiased position.  The Hodge example is noteworthy because it involves a highly specific party.  If JSWE can publish an article placing a spotlight on a single social work researcher, then it certainly can place a spotlight on IUSSW.  That is, if Hodge can defend himself within the pages of JSWE, as a spokesperson on behalf of others sharing his beliefs, then IUSSW (with its dozens of professors) can be expected to be capable of responding to the concerns presented in my manuscript, on behalf of itself and any other programs that approach doctoral education as it does.  If the Journal can entertain a debate on (believe it or not) the interpretation of specific Bible passages, it surely can find space for questions on specific implementations of social work PhD education.

One problem with this approach, as illustrated in the Hodge case, is that it often yields inconclusory head-butting.  Each side loads up with fresh ammunition, but there is no resolution.  That may be the best one could hope for, in a dispute involving intractable religious issues going back thousands of years.  It is likely that much more could be achieved in something like the IUSSW affair.

In one possible approach, JSWE’s editor could respond to a manuscript like mine by asking one or more reputable social work researchers to look into the matter.  Selection of such researchers could proceed as in some arbitrations:  each party would choose one such researcher, and then those two would select a third to round out their panel.  The researchers would invite a few rounds of exchanges between the parties, starting with the complaining document (e.g., my manuscript).  The researchers would focus the debate by reviewing each round and asking for clarification on points of particular interest.  JSWE would then publish the researchers’ report of their findings and recommendations.

The results of such a procedure, in its first use, could be quite embarrassing to the school in question.  After the first time, though, a preliminary call from the editor might be sufficient to encourage an SSW to take earnest steps toward achieving its own resolution.  Before long, the situations making it into print would tend to involve only the most obtuse SSWs and/or the most badly wronged (or perverse) complainants.  Even the embarrassing cases could be softened by giving the parties 30 days to take collaborative steps toward generating their own mutually beneficial solutions.  One ideal outcome would be for the parties, themselves, to prepare a portion of the investigators’ final report, describing key issues they confronted and the successful and/or unsuccessful steps they took to achieve resolution during that 30-day period.

A procedure of this sort could convey a sense that CSWE’s accreditation processes have been overlooking significant problems.  Handled well, however, it could also demonstrate that CSWE was now employing overlapping mechanisms to catch such problems.  Given the criticisms of CSWE that others have voiced, the absence of any such mechanism sends a pretty clear message that CSWE is not interested in double-checking.

Prior History

JSWE and Dr. Gutiérrez did not seek constructive or creative solutions in this case.  The available information suggests that their problem-solving capabilities were impaired by certain unfortunate aspects of the social work academic milieu.  A few remarks may clarify this statement.

I began with some concern that Dr. Gutiérrez would not give my manuscript fair treatment.  This fear arose from prior interactions.  Those interactions were not significant.  They did provide a hint, however, of a potential preexisting bias.  If JSWE had been a minor journal, such considerations would have prompted me to just choose another journal instead.  The interest in seeking publication in a major journal obliged me instead to confront the prospect of unfairness.

When I arrived at Michigan in fall 2009, I sought out Dr. Gutiérrez for a possible independent study focused on social work education.  She replied in a fairly warm tone, expressing potential interest, within an hour after receiving my email.  She asked what particular aspect of social work education I wanted to study.  I sent her a prompt response.  But now she did not reply at all.  Two weeks later, I followed up with another email.  At that point, she curtly indicated that she was not available.

I was not sure why Dr. Gutierrez’s tone changed so dramatically.  I said that I was interested in the topic of ethics in social work education because of remarkable experiences I’d had in my previous encounters with such education, and I indicated where those experiences had taken place.  Indiana is next to Michigan.  I assume Dr. Gutiérrez’s many years in social work academia have acquainted her with some faculty at IUSSW.  It appears to be fairly common practice for social work faculty to chat on the phone — in the worst cases, to exchange nasty gossip, without any effort to check the facts — so I assume she picked up the phone or sent an email to get IUSSW’s perspective on what I might have experienced there.

I expected Dr. Gutiérrez to be interested, possibly even concerned, about an apparent disconnect between social work education as she and I understood it.  In this, I may have overestimated her.  Or perhaps the better phrasing is that I have underestimated the extent to which social work faculty exclude divergent perspectives.  Dr. Gutiérrez was not interested in, or concerned about, those ethical issues in social work education that I proposed to study.  She just wanted to curtail further interaction with me, and that’s what she did.  This would not necessarily be the behavior, toward a student, that one would expect from an authority on best practices in social work education, but that’s what happened.

Questions of Subterfuge

Consistent with that prior experience, odd things happened when I submitted my manuscript to Dr. Gutiérrez in spring 2011.  The Journal, one of the top publications in the social work profession, appeared to have careful procedures in place for the handling of submissions.  Unfortunately, my manuscript did not seem to qualify for those procedures.  I noticed, in particular, that when I logged into JSWE’s website for authors, it indicated that only one reviewer had been assigned to my manuscript.  There were supposed to be two.  In addition, the site informed me that that reviewer had returned his/her response in April.  So what were we waiting for?  April turned to May, and then it was June, and then July, and still no decision on my submission.

In late June, I sent repeated messages to JSWE, asking about the missing reviewer and inquiring as to the status of my article.  These inquiries drew no response.  On the second one, I copied Dr. Gutiérrez.  She wrote back to say that she had no idea what was happening with my manuscript, but that she was copying the journal’s staff on her reply, so that they could get back to me.  They still didn’t reply.  I wrote back again to Dr. Gutiérrez, with a copy to the journal’s staff, but this time got no reply from anyone.

After another delay of ten days, in mid-July, I sent emails to five professors whose publications I had encountered while writing my manuscript.  These were people who specialized in PhD education.  I emailed each of them separately.  I sent the same message to each of the five.  To each message, I attached the manuscript that I had submitted to JSWE.

My message to those five experts said that I had been getting strange behavior from journal editors, in response to manuscripts that were critical of certain aspects of social work PhD education.  Neither the message nor the attached manuscript indicated which journals I was talking about.  I asked each of these five academics if they could refer me to book or journal publishers who might be interested in this sort of issue.  I also welcomed suggestions for other helpful contacts or sources.

Two of those five were social workers.  They did not reply at all.  Two were faculty members in schools of education.  One of them replied — weeks later, in a fairly aloof tone.  I did, however, get a prompt, helpful, and warm response from the fifth one — an economics professor.

Within an hour after I sent those emails, someone used Google to search for “Ray Woodcock social work” and, on the basis of that search, they checked my profile on Academia.edu.  I knew because Academia.edu sent me an automated notification.  It wasn’t likely to be a mere coincidence; I had received such a notice from Academia.edu only once before, and that had been months earlier.  My email message and the attached manuscript did not indicate which school I was attending, but my Academia.edu profile did have that information.  In other words, it seemed pretty likely that at least one of those five academics Googled me, seeking the sort of information that Academia.edu would have on a student.

That was on a Thursday evening.  Following the weekend, I received an email from someone on the JSWE’s staff, saying that she was acting on behalf of Dr. Gutiérrez to let me know that the reviewers had rejected my manuscript.

Now, that could be a coincidence.  But after months of silence and weeks of nonresponse to repeated inquiries, the timing was certainly interesting.  After all, it was pretty clear that one of those five academics had Googled me, and there was good reason to think they were looking for the name of my school.  So it is not farfetched to surmise that one of the five did contact IUSSW about me.  If that happened, they would almost surely have forwarded the email I sent them, with my manuscript attached.

The two who responded directly to me had no special involvement in social work, and the timing and content of their responses made it unlikely that either of them were the one who Googled me.  There was a question, in other words, as to whether a social work academic with a particular interest in social work education responded to an expression of distress from a student, not by taking the seemingly obvious and courteous step of replying to that student, but rather by notifying the people responsible for the student’s distress.

Suppose, then, that the sequence was as follows:  I wrote to a social work academic, complaining of unprofessional editorial handling of my manuscript; that social worker forwarded my message to IUSSW; IUSSW conveyed, to JSWE, the fact that I was planning to publicize JSWE’s way of handling my manuscript; and JSWE therefore broke its silence and told me of a negative decision that may, in fact, have been made months earlier.  One could not be certain that things happened this way.  But one would have reason to pose the question.

If that did happen, it would leave one missing link.  Even if IUSSW was informed of my intention to publicize unprofessional editorial behavior, they, too, would not be able to tell, from the manuscript, which journal I was talking about.  They could have guessed — there are only a few journals specializing in social work education — or they may have already received a call from Dr. Gutiérrez or someone else at JSWE.

I will not be surprised if one or more persons affiliated with CSWE choose to ridicule this set of remarks and speculations.  And such ridicule may conform with what actually happened.  The point here is that it may not.  People do wonder about such things, with good reason.

To minimize these sorts of questions, one obvious solution is prompt and respectful communication.  When an author asks why your journal has assigned only one reviewer, do the sensible thing and answer his question.  When a student contacts you in palpable anguish about developments in his PhD program, do the ethical thing and take steps to mitigate, not aggravate, his discomfiture.  If you fail to provide intelligent responses to reasonable questions, you will inspire questions about your apparent inability to communicate rationally.  It will appear, in some circumstances, that you may be engaging in defamatory communications at the writer’s expense, or that you have something to hide.

Although I have been critical of Dr. Gutiérrez in these remarks, and although it does seem she merits such criticism, there is one more dimension worth mentioning.  What should one infer when the editor of a journal indicates that she has no idea where one’s manuscript is, in the journal’s own editorial processes?  It could mean that she was inept; it could mean that she was out of the country or otherwise ill-positioned to shed light.  But the failure of JSWE staff to respond to her forwarded message suggests a different possibility, reinforced by that later message in which a staffer purported to be contacting me on behalf of Dr. Gutiérrez.  Such communications suggest that to some extent the editor of JSWE may be a figurehead — that the staff really runs the show, and does not necessarily pay much attention to what the editor says.  A possibility in this case would be that Dr. Gutiérrez started out on the wrong foot with me, and was inclined to keep it that way, but that the staff would have mishandled my manuscript and/or my inquiries regardless.

Conclusion

My manuscript was rejected at JSWE for reasons that do not stand up to scrutiny.  Coincidentally or not, I did not receive a statement of those reasons until I distributed an email message expressing an interest in using this incident to highlight unprofessional behavior by several social work journal editors.  As noted in an accompanying post, the reviews supporting the editor’s conclusion were slapdash compositions displaying significant unfamiliarity with the manuscript and a number of uninformed and illogical remarks.  It did appear that at least one of those reviews may have been thrown together at the last minute, and that both may have been written in response to editorial indications that my manuscript was not going to be published in any event.  These developments unfolded with an editor from the faculty of the nation’s top-ranked school of social work, on a journal published by America’s accrediting watchdog in the field of social work.

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Comments

  • Jared  On February 20, 2014 at 4:59 PM

    It is possible that the world is it to get you through a giant conspiracy where you are so important that she held the manuscript so that the world could save that time to better prepare for what you had to say. The other possibility, of course, is that your paper wasn’t good, she is busy and possibly disorganized, and was actually nice enough to get back to you at all in the first place. Which is more likely I wonder?

    • Ray Woodcock  On February 20, 2014 at 8:21 PM

      Jared, I don’t know if you intended to serve as a poster child for social work education. I don’t even know if you have such an education; I suppose it is possible that you were just trolling around the Internet, looking at random for someone to heckle. We won’t know your circumstances unless you volunteer more information: this is, so far, a one-sided affair.

      But you certainly have offered a reminder of what students get from social work education at its worst. Your remarks are gratuitously snide, when you could just as easily have been agreeable. You admit laziness, guessing about whether my paper was good, when all you had to do was follow the link and take an actual look at it. You invent facts to support a speculative conclusion, imagining that Dr. Gutierrez was somehow being “nice” to me, when there is no evidence of that whatsoever.

      If you wanted to make yourself look foolish, and to showcase what may be the fruit of a social work education, I would say your three sentences were effective. But allow me to suggest a different approach. If you think Dr. Gutierrez made the right decision on my paper, please do follow that link and post a comment there, so that everyone can see how you’ve reached your conclusion. In all events, if you are not completely closeminded, please make your next comment – here, there, or elsewhere – a friendly effort in which you visibly seek positive outcomes.

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