Questions for Journal Editors for the Tenth Anniversary of Deja Lu

Interview with Stacy Pigg, Editor, American Ethnologist

Interviewed by Gordon Mathews

Feb. 23, 2022.

Gordon Mathews: Tell me about the basics of American Ethnologist, how many submissions do you get, and how many papers do you publish?

Stacy Pigg: We get around 250 to 300 submissions each year. We have room to publish between 35 and 40 articles per year. In theory we could publish more articles: AE has moved away from print to being entirely online; the print version of AE is no longer being produced, and everything is being accessed through AnthroSource, and everything is a PDF. The constraint on the size of the journal is human labor. We invest a lot of time in the review process and then, once an article is accepted, we spend a lot of time editing it.

GM: The rejection rate is high because you get so many submissions. I imagine that’s painful because you probably have pieces you like that you have to reject.SP: Absolutely. The acceptance rate for AE historically hovers between 10% and 15%. Where editors differ is in their practice: how many we reject after the first peer review and how many we invite to revise and resubmit and after a revised and resubmitted article is peer reviewed in the second round, how many of those we accept or reject. Michael Hathaway, my co-editor and I, decided to invest more in revise and resubmit. It’s doubling or tripling our workload but it’s led to interesting things! We do reject many papers after the first round peer review. Maybe the concept needs more consideration, or maybe AE is not the best home for the piece. We have tried to be generous in giving people an opportunity to revise based on reviewer comments. Then if,  after that second round of peer review, the revision has really not dealt well with the flagged issues for readers, then we’re likely to reject it.

GM: Give me the timeline of how you deal with papers.SP: We have a larger staff than most other journals. From the author’s point of view, once you go through the author’s submission portal—which, I do apologize, is incredibly bureaucratic and takes a while to go through, but we have no control over—there’s a human being at the other end who screens the submissions. Once we editors receive it, we screen every paper to see whether it could be a desk reject. A desk reject happens when a paper is really so far off the mark of being a fit the for the journal that there’s no point in sending it through peer review. If someone’s paper is desk rejected, it doesn’t prevent you from fixing what you did wrong and submitting again in the future, but it means you’re nowhere close to the target range in format or content or topic or style. Once we screen out desk rejects, then we start looking for the appropriate peer reviewers. When Michael Hathaway and I started as Editors, we decided to send out the abstracts to the Editorial Board for suggestions for reviewers. We put together a diverse Editorial Board who are located in different parts of the world who have different knowledge bases and are at different points in their careers and have different kinds of networks. The Editorial Board sends suggestions and we also have editorial assistants who are graduate students or postdocs in anthropology; they do research to find appropriate peer reviewers. The first place we always look for possible peer reviewers is the author’s reference list.  Authors are allowed to recommend or oppose reviewers, so we will almost always invite at least one of the recommended reviewers, and we would never invite an opposed reviewer. We are looking for people who will have a sympathetic reading; we want people who are likely to get excited about the core of the paper, but also be tough readers to improve papers. We try, ideally, to have a mix of views.

GM: How many how many reviewers do you have?

SP: We’ve had to cut down under Covid conditions because there’s been a dramatic drop in people’s willingness to peer review. Four is great, five is quite wonderful, but we just can’t do it anymore, and during the pandemic we’ve had to drop down to three. I would rather have four voices advising me, but sometimes it can take us two to three months to get even three people to agree to peer review a paper.

GM How long does it take for a typical piece from submission to publication?

SP: Submission to publication is super variable. Very, very rarely a paper is accepted in its first peer-reviewed version. More typically, a paper has to go through two rounds of peer review. The time and author submits a manuscript to when we’re able to write the decision letter; right now we are averaging four to five months to do that.

But some people are going to fall outside that average. The pandemic has really slowed down the peer review process. On average now, we send out reviewer invitations to fifteen people in order to get three. Before the pandemic, about 40% or 45% of the people that you invite to review agree to the invitation. By 2020 that dropped to just under 30% and we’ve also noticed that more reviewers agree to review and then ask for extensions. I would say that submission to publication in AE probably takes about two years. There’s a small part of it under the author’s control: when we send you that revise and resubmit letter, maybe the author revises the paper in six weeks, maybe the author needs ten months or two or three years.  Life happens!

GM: As chair of my department, I often advised assistant professors not to submit to American Ethnologist because it takes so long: submit to a second or third-tier journal, instead, I told them.

SP: People need to think about their overall publication strategy over a five-year period. It probably is unwise to put all your eggs in one basket in terms of one of these quite competitive journals because it does take a long time. One piece of advice is that sometimes new scholars submit too soon. I would not advise people to submit a dissertation chapter before you’ve defended your dissertation. The authors often don’t have enough distance from it to craft it as a good article. It’s risky when you’re sending to a journal like AE that is rejecting 85% of the stuff that comes in.  

GM: What is AE’s business model? From editors I’ve interviewed around the world, they describe how frightening the finances are. My impression is that AE is in pretty good shape financially. Do you get paid for what you do?

PG: No, I do not. We were able to negotiate with the university to be able to get some of our teaching bought out. Fifty percent of my time has been freed up to do journal work. I spend 20 hours a week, every single week on journal work, and Michael as co editor is also working on it.

GM: How many assistants are working for you?

SP: We’ve varied over time, at one point we had three, with one of them paid with a graduate fellowship that we were able to wrangle out of the university. We were able to negotiate with Simon Fraser University through its publication fund to contribute to the salary for the editorial assistant is an early career anthropologist working part-time. And the rest of the expenses of the journal come out of the American Ethnological Society budget. We’re part of the AnthroSource portfolio, a hard arrangement to explain! The American Anthropological Association has a partnership with Wiley Blackwell, a for-profit academic publisher; that arrangement is also a profit-sharing arrangement, so Wiley Blackwell kicks back to the American Anthropological Association a contractually-agreed-upon percentage of the revenues, which come from basically from library subscriptions. The revenues get divvied up among the AnthroSource portfolio journals. 

       We’re expecting that to change; the AAA is in the middle of negotiating what the next contract will be. The AAA has stated its commitment to move towards open access but based on what kind of model? That is all up in the air. It really does cost money to publish articles.

 At AE we do have revenue. This pays for a copy editor whose only job is to copy-edit AE articles. A lot of for-profit academic publishers cut corners and squeeze profit out of the production process. One place where they typically cut corners is through minimal copy-editing for the journal, so they’ll only check at the most superficial level for consistency, and beyond that they’re not paying attention. At AE, we spend a lot of time bringing a paper that we’ve already accepted into the form that you see it when you see it in print. As editors, we sit down with every accepted article; we read it slowly and carefully and look for places of ambiguity or overgeneralization, or concepts that need to be unpacked or filled out. Often with authors who write in multiple languages (with English only one of them), we’ll spend a lot of time discerning what they intend to say and offering them ideas for different ways to say the same thing. We’ll spend between an hour to as much as 10 hours as editors going through and giving comments to the authors for them to prepare the next version, which then goes to our copy editor; he usually goes through at least two but often three or four rounds with authors. He’s doing more than just making sure that the references are in the right format and sentences are grammatical; he’s looking for inconsistency of argument, and fact-checking. We invest a lot in working with authors on the quality of the writing in AE articles, and that costs money.

GM: That’s an extraordinary luxury that you have a copy editor but that’s really useful: that’s why the standard is so high, because you have that time and energy.

An editor in Europe said, ”In my journal, I have to really beg for submissions; I’m looking for good submissions. I wish I had access to American Ethnologist’s garbage pail!” Most of the journal editors I’ve talked to suffer from the problem of insufficient contributions. What would you say to them?

SP: We kind of feel that way too sometimes! Editors’ networking is really important. When we reject a paper, we’re not saying “your work is trash”; we’re saying that it’s not a good fit for our journal, but there’s another audience for whom this would be really good. Sometimes we cut an author loose because we don’t feel that we can invest more time in that paper, but if I see that paper show up six months later in another journal I’m so happy for that author!  We don’t have a garbage pail, we have a Harry Potter sorting hat!  Anthropology isn’t like the sciences; we don’t really have tiers of journals.  

GM: There are critiques of Anglo-American hegemony in anthropology, that the Americans make the agenda for anthropology and determine what’s good anthropology and what’s not. I know at AE you’ve worked very hard to have a diverse editorial board and are trying to internationalize, but AE is in English.

SP: Yes, it’s in English and grounded in a history and a location, in the American Ethnological Society that’s been around since 1843 with all its ugly setter colonial history, AES and AE carry some of that historical legacy. Michael and I are both Americans who immigrated to Canada; anthropology in the US and in Canada are different, and working in Canada has changed who I am as an anthropologist. The next team of editors of AE are based in New Zealand and Australia. In terms of hegemony, I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t the reality.  I’ve seen it myself. As an undergraduate I studied anthropology in Brazil, and so, when I went to graduate school at Cornell I was lost because I’d read a bunch of stuff for the first time in Portuguese, and I did not know the English terms for certain things! I draw on that embodied knowledge of different anthropologies pretty much every day with AE. How could we challenge hegemony? There are limitations, because English is going to be the language in which things are published and we just don’t have a capacity to change that. Language of expression matters. I want to believe that we are not gatekeeping into a limited prestige system, at least. I think there are multiple anthropologies happening in North America too. We try to find peer reviewers who are able to appreciate what is being done in diverse locations; we are now doing a pretty good job of getting reviewers from all over the world; we make an effort to have an Editorial Board that has rich and varied networks.

       I often wish our authors would take more risks. The most common flaw that we see in articles, even article submissions coming from American elite graduate programs, is that they analyze things in a really hermetic way so that it doesn’t open outward.  What we look for is articles that go partway down a path that’s open for other people to follow. We seek articles that connect ethnographic specificity with original theoretical contributions. A lot of people interpret theoretical contribution to ‘everybody’s talking about ontology so I need to talk about ontology.” Those are the least successful papers!  The ones that really work are those that say, “here’s a conversation that we ought to be having,” in terms of locating the theory or the literature review, “here’s an issue to think about,” and drawing the reader into that. 

I know, for my own past how many really exciting things are happening in Brazilian anthropology, for instance. So I would love to receive an article, written in English, that discusses the debates in Brazilian anthropology and explains why this is interesting, what concepts and issues are at play, explaining them to an audience that doesn’t know much about Brazilian anthropology.  If you just explain the issues at play, we would read that as a theoretical contribution. We definitely would not say, “well so and so at the University of Chicago or Berkeley isn’t thinking about that, so we’re not interested.” 

GM: That’s a great message—I’m sure that people who read this interview will be happy to hear that. But there are different anthropologies practiced in Japan or India or Brazil. Because your readers are largely American, don’t you reject things that don’t fit within the American style of anthropology to at least some extent?

SP: To some extent. We’d be lying if we said that that wasn’t that wasn’t the case. It’s a question of audience. We often are telling authors, “you have to realize that AE is a generalist anthropology journal, so you need to write for people who are eager to hear what you have to say, but are not inside your head already.” You have to write for readers who might find something interesting in your discussion of political ecology in the Canadian Arctic for thinking about health development programs in rural Thailand. That’s what excites me about anthropology, the unpredictable linkages and inspirations and networks and patterns that can inspire and intersect in really interesting conversations. Folks at elite programmes in American anthropological have no advantage over anthropologists anywhere else in being able to do that.

We want writers who are able to convey their curiosity as anthropologists: an article that can really express the kind of perceptions and thought processes about those encounters that we call research. If they can express that magic, there will be readers out there who want to read it. My main message is to write not imagining all the criticisms, “somebody will find fault with me for saying this,” but rather to get other people as interested and excited as you are about what you are writing about. Peer reviewers will respond maybe with a whole series of suggestions or criticisms, but it’s feedback about how you’ve reached your audience; it’s a process of conversation, it’s not meant to be a process of gatekeeping. Sometimes you may not get an article in American Ethnologist but with an article in another journal instead, or you end up not writing that article, and then regroup two or three years later and write something really amazing.

GM: I think you’re telling the international audience, “don’t worry about issues of American hegemony, don’t worry about what the journal expects, just write and send us stuff from your own anthropological perspective, and we will take it seriously.” Is that correct?  

SP: Yes, we know it’s not a level playing field it just absolutely is not.  But you have to give the readers enough clues about the tradition that you’re coming from and the aims and objectives of your anthropology practice, whatever that is, so that a wide diversity of readers can follow along. And if you as an author feel that if you are taking a risk sending something, help us out with a cover letter, give us some orientation and suggest people who would be appropriate reviewers, who are inside your tradition but enough outside of it that they can they can speak to both parts. Help us be able to review it properly and help us understand what you’re trying to do, and why you want to send it to American Ethnologist and its generalist audience. If a paper uses existing conceptual tools and does a fabulous analysis of excellent field work, we will recognize that as a good piece of work, but we’re not likely to select it to be published in American Ethnologist.  It has to shift the terrain or open up a new question. I would say that probably half or more of our submitting authors are not from the US. 

I don’t think there is one anthropology in the world, but I think there’s an umbrella that we call anthropology. The question of who your anthropology is for and what is its purpose, those things are on people’s minds in the US, creating a moment of opportunity for anthropologists oriented towards different traditions.