A Critic’s Encounters with Two Journals of Social Work Education

In early 2011, I submitted a manuscript to two different journals of social work education.  That manuscript was critical of social work education.  As such, one might predict that social work educators — the people who would be reviewing the manuscript — would not appreciate it.  The manuscript did pass the editors’ initial screening.  But the reviewers at both journals rejected it.

This blog now contains several posts that examine how social work editors and reviewers have responded to submitted manuscripts.  In this case, the manuscript is about social work education in general, not about education at a particular school of social work.  As such, it contributes a different perspective on the topic.

For the best understanding of the following materials, it will probably be advisable to read the manuscript first, form one’s own conclusions, and then continue with the following text.  That should make this post easier to understand.  It may also produce some surprises.  Not all readers will see things as the reviewers did.

For readers who elect to continue directly on to the following material at this time, I will insert, here, the comments that my manuscript received from a well-known social work professor.  Putting those comments here may help to underscore just how badly the reviewers missed the boat.  That professor’s comments (edited to remove personally identifying information) are as follows:

“A Social Work Education:  Prospects for Clinical Social Work Education (2012)” [that is, the manuscript I submitted to these journals] is certainly one of the best presented and argued criticisms of social work and social work education.  I shall make use of it in courses and as a reference.  It should be published prominently just as it is, in social work if possible and if not there, then in one of the better community psychology journals.  You might wish to begin with the Social Service Review and then Research on Social Work Practice.  In order to receive the broadest attention, it would be good for the essay to appear in a Social Science Citation Index journal.

Getting a high quality critical piece published in this field is a pain in the ass and might take years.  I encourage you to put up with seemingly inevitable disappointments.  Take them as a price to pay in tribute for persistence, intelligence and good work.

You seem to assume the effectiveness of the clinical role and the possibility that clinical social work, let alone psychotherapy and social work itself, is a feasible response to personal and social problems. . . . However, the inattention to the effectiveness of clinical practice does not impair your essay which stands tall by itself. . . .

As you have found out, getting anything critical of the field published in its journals is very difficult.

The following paragraphs begin with the full text of the reviewers’ comments, and then continue into my responses.  I have proofread the text of the reviewers’ comments shown below.  As far as I can tell, all typographical and other errors in the reviewers’ remarks, as shown here, were in the originals that I received from the journals.

Reviewers’ Comments

First Journal:  Social Work Education (UK)

Reviewer 1

The author(s) take issue with statements made by Reid and Edwards (2006) in relation to American schools of social work becoming more responsive to the demand for clinical social work training.  The authors then make a series of critiques against this position.  The authors make several important critiques that social work educators should take seriously.  However, the author(s) critique is so laden with harsh commentary on social work education that it is difficult to see past that to the important and valid points being made on the deficits in social work education/clinical social work training.  This commentary puts into question the author(s) objectivity on the issue of clinical training in social work education.  [The handful of specific phrasings criticized by this reviewer as being excessively harsh have largely been revised, in the manuscript, and are not listed here.]

The author(s) make no reference to the importance of therapeutic rapport that has also been associated with client outcomes in the literature.  This is a serious oversight in a discussion on clinical training and practice.

Given the above, I would not recommend it for publication.  I think this paper would be better framed as an argument for why the rigor of social work clinical training need to be/should be improved with suggestions on how to do this, with a particular emphasis on implications for social work educators and field instructors.

Reviewer 2

This article is based upon a reply to a paper published in 2006 by Reid and Edwards in this journal.  I found the article difficult to follow as it moved around building an argument contrary to Reid and Edwards in a muddled and superficial way.  The article draws on research in social work education, however it is presented in a journalistic style with embellishments but little substance or depth.  These soundbites use American slang words for example, ‘they may publish better stuff’ page 9 – also ‘Given a candy store’  page 11. ‘there are multiple galaxies within the mental health universe’    The paper is littered with generalisations and rhetoric which downplay and obscure its possibilities for publication.

Second Journal:  Journal of Teaching in Social Work

Reviewer 3

This an extended and ill-focused essay, mostly organized around a Reid and Edwards article that appeared 5 years ago in the Journal of Social work Education. Organized around its reaction to another article, it tends toward off-the-top-of-the-head statements, such as the brief discussion of international social work education (bottom p. 4, top of p. 5), which left this reader, who has had considerable international experience, breathless.  Whether the reader may agree or disagree with the contentions, it lacks a systematic treatment.  Indeed what the author recommends for R.& E. on p 13 (differentiate clinical social work from other kinds of direct practice, subdivide mental health work, tailor  .. . remarks to divergent realities within various areas) is a lifetime scholarly endeaver, and one which would undoubtedly help heal social work education from some of the issues the author alludes to. lacking any systematic development of its many ideas, the article is not suitable fot the Journal of Teaching for Social Work [sic].  Indeed some of the ideas may have merit, but that could only be discerned in a more systematic and scholarly presentation.

Reviewer 4

Overview

The authors use an article written by Reid and Edwards in 2006 as the basis both for a critique of that particular work and a discussion of alternative suggestions for strengthening and upgrading social work programs so that they more effectively meet the changing demands in the community.  They have included an extensive and impressive reference list.

General Comments

The authors make many important and relevant points that should be considered carefully by social work educators and professionals.  However the document is difficult to follow and the language/writing style is confusing.  Using the Reid and Edwards article as a starting point adds to the confusion.  One way to address this would be to summarize succinctly the points made by Reid and Edwards and then to critique these one by one.  Instead the authors use quotes from the 2006 article that seem somewhat random and out of context.

Another possibility would be for the authors to forget the Reid and Edwards article and develop their own commentary on the state of the social work profession (semi-profession?).  They do not gain much by referring to this earlier document; rather the current approach seems to dilute the impact of what they are attempting to say.

Either way the manuscript needs to be more focused and specific. Throughout the authors seem to go off on tangents that seem less than relevant (see specific comments below).

Specific Comments

  • pp. 1-2. Minor note – the key words on the cover page don’t seem appropriate for this particular manuscript and also don’t match the key terms listed on page 2.
  • p.4. The authors state that they are focusing on American schools of social work but then remark on how “Diffusion of an American concept of the profession may displace local educational innovations…” (lines 29- 49 and continuing on page 5). This seems to interfere with the intent of the paper.
  • p. 7. The authors use description that detracts from a scholarly presentation (e.g. “Law school is three hard years of study”). This statement really cannot be substantiated.
  • p.7. The section entitled “Social Work Among the Semi-professions” is confusing and difficult to follow.
  • p. 8 The section entitled “MSW Quality Control” is rambling and also difficult to follow.
  • p.9. The authors cite Flexner (1915) when they state that “For clinical purposes the MSW tries to do too many things”. Using a recent reference or references would strengthen this point immeasurably.
  • p. 10. The statement that reads “Nor is this an argument that clinical social workers, however trained, fail to bring about good in the world” seems gratuitous.
  • p. 10. The use of colloquial language (i.e. “They may publish better stuff…”) detracts from the presentation.
  • p.12. The discussion on supervision is confusing and difficult to follow.
  • p.13. The statement that …”consumers are becoming more willing and/or widely expected to open up their souls for scrutiny…” cannot be defended.
  • p. 14. The authors state that “…social work education seems to be hoping that neuroscience will just go away without undermining its reliance upon old concepts of therapy”. This point is not clear.
  • p. 15. The authors suggest that the development of clinical social work PHD programs might help to address some of the limitations in the current social work education system. By drawing on and referencing the requirements for existing clinical doctoral programs in social work, the authors could strengthen their argument.
  • p. 19. The points about education debt seem tangential.
  • p. 20. In their comments on licensure and full-time private practice, the authors state ”       “… and only a fraction of those make it into independent private practice before their kids are grown…”. Again, a statement such as this detracts from a scholarly presentation.
  • pp. 20-21. The conclusion does not fully summarize and articulate the central arguments set forth by the authors.

Discussion

Apparently the journals did not give reviewers a rubric to indicate what they should be looking for.  Hence, rather than offering a point-by-point analysis, this discussion is limited to a few general themes that seem to run through most of the foregoing reviews.

Grammar and Style

These four reviewers seem to have found common ground in the area of grammar and style.  All four provide criticisms on that level.  Indeed, issues of that nature are nearly the sole preoccupation of Reviewer 2.  Even Reviewer 4, who provided a relatively structured and thoughtful critique, devotes one-fourth of his/her specific comments to concerns with such things as the selection of key words, the use of colloquial language, and the need for a more comprehensive conclusion.

Of course, such comments can be helpful.  As noted in the introduction to the post containing the manuscript, I did revise it in response to the first two reviewers’ remarks.  No one is going to agree with critics on everything, but I do think they had some valid criticisms on this level, and I appreciated their suggestions.

Ordinarily, however, issues with grammar and style tend to be relatively nitpicky.  They can involve the sorts of fixes that would be matters for the editor rather than the reviewers.  Not to say it was inappropriate for the reviewers to mention some such items.  But when examining a manuscript that provides “important critiques” (Reviewer 1) or “important and relevant points that should be considered carefully” (Reviewer 4), one might expect that the bulk of a reviewer’s attention would be devoted to the manuscript’s treatment of important issues.  It would be misguided to reject a potentially important manuscript because of wording that might easily be adjusted in a revision.

In some cases I found the stylistic comments less than helpful.  For example, I realize that one can say, “They may publish better material” instead of saying “They may publish better stuff.”  I know that “material” sounds more educated.  But I am, in fact, educated.  It’s not something I need to prove.  If I use “stuff” in order to mix up the writing and make it a little less, well, stuffy, maybe that’s a net improvement.  Either way, it was disappointing that Reviewer 4, who had time to articulate that concern about “stuff,” somehow ran out of time to specify what went wrong in three major sections of the manuscript – the ones s/he dismissed with the sweeping claim that they were “confusing and difficult to follow.”

Substance

Why would a reviewer focus on style rather than substance?  Consider one topic, presumably “important,” that got no mention:  ethics.  Among other things, the manuscript raises “a question as to the ethicality of clinical social work education.”  That question isn’t “confusing.”  It isn’t written in Greek.  It seems like something that would catch the attention of someone who cares about the future of social work training.  But in these reviews, it passes without comment.  We have attention to the word “stuff,” but silence on the ethics of social work education, in reviews for journals of social work education.

It does seem worth noticing what happened after I revised the manuscript in response to the stylistic changes recommended by Reviewers 1 and 2, at the first journal, and submitted the revised version to the Journal of Teaching in Social Work.  One might expect that Reviewers 3 and 4 would now have been able to avoid getting bogged down in the trivia, and could instead have focused on the substance of my remarks on the article by Reid and Edwards.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.  The big complaint now was less trivial, but still not remotely substantial.  Reviewers 3 and 4 resorted, instead, to the theory that the manuscript was poorly structured.

What, specifically, was the problem with the manuscript’s structure?  For Reviewer 3, the structural problem is, at least in part, that the manuscript is “lacking any systematic development of its many ideas.”  This reviewer would like for me to spend more time developing each idea.  That could be an appropriate suggestion for a book.  But in an article, you tend to have a limited number of pages to work with.  Each page is going to have a certain number of ideas.  Each of those ideas can be broken down into sub-ideas, and those sub-ideas can be further subdivided and amplified.  Indeed, a single sub-idea could itself become the topic of a separate article.  But how, exactly, does that assist in the purpose of the manuscript, which is to reply to the views expressed by Reid and Edwards?

Reviewer 3 thinks that what I have broached in one article amounts to “a lifetime scholarly endeaver” (sic).  The suggestion seems to be that Reid and Edwards could combine those ideas within a single manuscript — indeed, within just a portion of their manuscript — but that my reply should instead spread those ideas out for leisurely review over the next several decades.  I guess that would be one way to try to address the many problems in social work education.  But why not communicate the ideas now, and leave me and others to debate and elaborate on them later?

Perhaps a clearer statement of the structural problem can be found in a suggestion offered by Reviewer 4:  “forget the Reid and Edwards article.”  It is an interesting suggestion.  The basic idea seems to be that, in a manuscript written to critique ideas advanced in an article written by Reid and Edwards, I should not draw the reader’s attention to the article written by Reid and Edwards.  The underlying premise seems to be that, in social work, we do not engage in debate of ideas.  We just launch forth with our own thoughts, free of critical discussion.

Hubris

My manuscript was reviewed by social work academics — professors, most likely, who teach students.  It was submitted to journals of social work education.  So we were not very far, here, from situations in which professors (probably including these very reviewers) expect their students to read assigned articles.  Admittedly, in my years as a graduate student in social work, I have definitely encountered professors who didn’t know or, apparently, care whether their students had done the reading or not.  But at some point in almost any course, a professor is going to grade students on whether their exams, their papers, their presentations, or some other work product displays at least some trace of familiarity with something that someone else has written.

It seems appropriate, in other words, to expect these reviewers to have read the Reid and Edwards article, and to display some familiarity with that article in their reviews.  That is, presumably they would not want to put themselves in the position of a student whose term paper said, “I didn’t read that article because I believed my essay would be better without any specific references to it.”  Yes, the reviewers could have their opinions that my manuscript contained rhetoric or was poorly structured.  But at the end of the day, the central question is, did I advance a persuasive alternative to views presented by Reid and Edwards?  And on that, the reviewers are silent.

That seems like a poor performance.  If a substitute instructor observed this sort of thing in the first four papers that students submitted in response to an assignment, s/he would be reasonably concerned that perhaps the regular instructor is disserving the entire class.  At some point, the substitute instructor might begin to anticipate that most of the students’ papers — or, in this case, most reviews of most manuscripts, written for these journals and perhaps for other social work journals as well — may be of similarly poor quality.

There is an additional level to that.  These reviews convey no sign that the reviewers recognized how poor their work was.  This is not a case where the student apologizes for not having time to read the assigned article.  This is more like the situation where students are not merely submitting unacceptable papers and exams, but are unwilling or unable to ask themselves how their work might be improved.  It seems that these reviewers, apparently like other social work professors, may have been deluded by years of undergraduate and graduate education in which they rarely if ever encountered a direct and well-reasoned rebuttal of their views — followed by promotion to an ego-boosting faculty position in which they were entitled to deliver Truth to students.

After years of criticizing students’ papers and exams with whatever random thought comes to mind, such professors and reviewers may be shocked to encounter a demonstration that their words are absurd.  Consider the following examples from what these four reviewers sent me:

  • Reviewer 1, alone among the four reviewers, thinks that the manuscript should have included remarks on therapeutic rapport.  S/he doesn’t explain how such remarks would have been relevant.
  • Disagreeing with the view that the manuscript makes many important points (above), Reviewer 2 considers it completely “superficial.”  Similarly, Reviewer 3 thinks it needs to be more “scholarly.”  To the writer receiving these vague criticisms, it sounds as if these reviewers think that what Reviewer 4 calls an “impressive reference list” was just there for show.  There is a fair question, within the context of social work education, as to how many students have seen their hard work unfairly dismissed with such belittling nonsense.
  • Reviewer 3 claims to have been left “breathless” by a sentence referring to the imperialistic potential of an effort to impose an American conceptualization of mental illness abroad.  But that sentence in the manuscript cites two sources in support.  Evidently the reviewer is under the impression that breathlessness — by which s/he apparently means his/her personal experience — would refute published research.  (Note that none of the four reviewers cites any published sources to show that the manuscript actually did have specific shortcomings in light of relevant literature.  It tentatively appears that these reviewers were not familiar enough with such literature to draw upon it in their critiques.)
  • Reviewer 4 asserts that the statement that “law school is three hard years of study” “cannot be substantiated.”  Cannot?  Does the reviewer understand what substantiation is?  Is there some reason why one could not look at, say, research on hours of study, or on student psychiatric evaluations?  I realize the reviewer could not know that I have published a book on law school.  But that’s no excuse for this sort of remark.
  • Reviewer 4 says it is also impossible to defend the statement that “consumers are becoming more willing and/or widely expected to open up their souls for scrutiny.”  Again, it hardly seems impossible to consult data on such questions as whether people see therapists more frequently now than in the past, or what their views and experiences are with respect to therapy.
  • Reviewer 4 recommends that I strengthen the reference to Flexner by using a more recent source.  The reviewer seems not to realize that s/he is criticizing the topic sentence of a paragraph.  In other words, the sentence s/he quotes is immediately followed by a 165-word elaboration that contains supporting citations to 13 recent sources.  So does this suggestion mean that the reviewer could not understand that paragraph?  Or was s/he perhaps multitasking?  I could certainly make the manuscript more readable for a non-academic audience (though doing so would seemingly be inconsistent with other reviewers’ interest in a more “scholarly” treatment).  Either way, this is, again, an editorial matter.  It is not a flaw in the substance of the text.

These examples, focusing especially on the more articulate response provided by Reviewer 4, raise the prospect that Reviewers 1, 2, and 3 would have put forth numerous additional absurdities, if they had dared to replace their vacuous generalities with specific assertions like those advanced by Reviewer 4.

I do see, from these four reviews, that there was a problem with my manuscript.  The reviewers’ disregard of substance has not shown me that the problem is one of substance.  Rather, the reviewers have conveyed to me the impression that they begin by deciding whether they like an article, and then try to dress up their personal feelings in pseudo-intellectual terms.  There is always going to be some way to criticize almost anything that someone could write, and the journal editor is not likely to reject a review for being incompetent or unresponsive to the substance of a manuscript.  So, as demonstrated here, a reviewer can skim a manuscript, write a few sentences, and be done with it.  There is no need to spend additional time reading a Reid and Edwards article, if one has already decided that one dislikes the message of a manuscript discussing that article.  And a manuscript criticizing the education provided by social work professors is an especially good candidate for dislike.

Scholars of social work education would not necessarily be surprised by the outcome I experienced at the hands of these reviewers.  For example, Gambrill (2010) criticizes a tendency toward “propaganda” in social work.  As demonstrated here, the purpose of social work journal publications is not necessarily to drive toward a nuanced, critical understanding of conflicting ideas, as expressed in the manuscript’s contrast between my views and those of Reid and Edwards.  Rather, these reviewers provide reasons to suspect that the purpose of some (perhaps many) such publications is to provide certain therapeutic benefits — to reduce anxiety, for example, or to alleviate confusion about what one is supposed to think, promote group belonging, or confer a reassuring sense of superiority vis-à-vis the allegedly deluded or maladapted Other (see Rank, 1994; Margolin 1997, pp. 103-105).

Conclusion

This post critiques four reviews of a manuscript that I submitted to two social work journals.  The foregoing paragraphs have provided some reason for concern that the reviewers focused on superficial and peripheral matters because they were unwilling if not unable to deal with the substance of the manuscript.  The argument advanced here is not that my manuscript was publishable.  I think it was, but I’m biased.  The argument is, rather, that we didn’t get to the question of whether it was publishable, because this manuscript (and God knows how many others) did not get a competent review.

While four reviews are not enough to support a generalization about the quality of peer reviews across multiple articles and journals, an unbroken series of four inept reviews does warrant concern that social workers may not be seeing important material, material that they should see, because the gatekeepers of their profession’s journals are failing to distinguish good material from bad.  Needless to say, this sort of thing could eventually produce a professional literature that substantially misleads or confuses social workers individually and their profession collectively.  Whether my own manuscript is a good illustration of that is a question that I have now made available to the individual reader.

These and other interactions with social work journal reviewers, and with social work faculty generally, lead to the suggestion that journal quality may be improved by dispensing with mandatory peer review.  That will probably not happen, for the most part; there is too much prestige attached to the myth that earnest scholars are carefully vetting manuscripts in search of the best work.  Nonetheless, elimination of the peer review step would put the selection of articles in the hands of an editor who (with adequate support staff, and with the option of drawing upon outside specialists) could process manuscripts much more quickly and effectively.  Since the journal hires the editor and his/her staff, this change would increase the likelihood that a journal so inclined could select manuscripts for their quality rather than for their feel-good appeal.  The suggestion may be most likely to yield a superior outcome if the journal required its editor to have a graduate degree in a research-oriented social science (e.g., sociology).  In the best case, the journal and/or the editor could implement arrangements designed to reduce the risk that articles would be selected according to their compatibility with the editor’s own views.  Even without such protections, however, it is not clear that journals so administered would be more skewed than are today’s peer-reviewed social work journals.

This post demonstrates that social work professors are capable of tending toward illogical and unsupported views, even when there are fairly obvious reasons to favor other views.  In this instance, such behavior emerges in the journal review context (as distinct from e.g., the classroom).  This behavior presumably could not thrive without active collaboration by relevant entities (e.g., journals, schools of social work).  These impressions suggest that the student or writer who wishes to present unorthodox or unpopular views may be effectively restricted if not flatly excluded from full participation in such entities.  My own experience in this case provides one illustration of how such exclusion can unfold.

Advertisements
Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: