By Christopher (Cal) Lee, Editor, American Archivist
The past month has been one of intensive listening, discussion, and reflection for many people, including me and the other members of the American Archivist Editorial Board regarding the forthcoming article in volume 82, number 2 of the journal, “To Everything There Is a Season” by Frank Boles, and its selection for a Brown Bag Lunch discussion during ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2019 in Austin.
I selected the article for the brown bag event in order to further professional dialog and not to endorse a viewpoint. I have heard members of the profession who have expressed that the article dismisses their experiences and their work in making SAA and the profession more equitable and that the article should not be published at all. I have heard others who have expressed significant concerns about withdrawing the article from publication and discussion. While I have responded to many individuals who have contacted me directly, I regret that I did not more quickly issue a public statement that we were hearing and reflecting on your concerns, and taking steps to address them. I would like to convey my appreciation of the diverse and valuable perspectives shared with me.
This post is intended to provide further context. It is a personal account from my perspective as Editor. More information about the Editorial Board’s activities and plans will be shared as they develop.
As many are aware, at its August 1 meeting during ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2019, the SAA Council voted to cancel the scheduled American Archivist brown bag lunch discussion about the Boles article during the conference. The following day, August 2, the Council issued a statement indicating, “The Council believes that giving a platform to the article noted above at this conference contradicts this effort to be inclusive.” In a later statement on August 15, the Council expressed that creating a “welcoming and safe environment . . . is of paramount concern to this Council and is at the forefront of our considerations. In cancelling the brown bag lunch discussion, we took an action that all of us felt necessary in the context of the Austin conference. We agree with many that the ideas put forward in the article warrant a vigorous professional conversation, and it was not our intent to limit that.”
Social media was the chief outlet through which individuals expressed concerns about the Boles article and the brown bag event, with posts first appearing on July 31. Several individuals also contacted me directly through my Editor email account. In addition, I had many conversations onsite at the conference. The concerns expressed included forthcoming publication of the article in the journal, selection of the article for the brown bag discussion, the RSVP item, and the timing of the event.
American Archivist Peer Review Process
As with all other articles submitted to American Archivist, Boles’s manuscript was subject to a double-blind peer review process. This means that we do not reflect the identity of authors to the reviewers, nor do we reflect the identity of the reviewers to authors. All articles submitted to the journal receive three peer reviews: one from a member of the Editorial Board and two from other members of the profession. We use a system called PeerTrack to administer this process. My predecessor, Greg Hunter, built a pool of potential reviewers by encouraging people to register with PeerTrack, and I have done the same. We now have 240 registered reviewers. I continue to encourage people to become a peer reviewer, so the process can best reflect the rich array of expertise and perspectives of the profession. When creating an account, reviewers are able to indicate their areas of interest and expertise.
When the journal receives a new submission, I first examine it to be sure it is complete and that the author has not inadvertently included identifying information in the text. I then invite three reviewers based on areas of expertise/interest and work load considerations. After identifying individuals whose profile indicates a match based on the topic of the manuscript, I check to see if any of the prospects have performed a review recently. The goal is to consider the full set of prospective reviewers and not simply to return to the same ones. Reviewers have 30 days to complete their reviews.
Peer review for American Archivist is based on a rubric developed by the Editorial Board in 2012 that includes several factors such as statement of problem or purpose, relevance of the topic, importance of the topic, contribution to the literature, organization, drawing and building upon relevant literature, methodology (considered broadly in perspective pieces), discussion, conclusion and mechanics.
Once I receive the three reviews, I make a determination of “accept,” “reject,” or “revise” based on the feedback provided. The majority of submissions to American Archivist fall into the “revise” category, in which I convey comments and concerns that the authors should address in order for the manuscript to be published in the journal.
After completing the process above, I accepted Boles’s manuscript for publication in the journal. For those not familiar with journal peer review processes, it is important to point out that publication of an article is not a formal endorsement of the author’s ideas. The peer review process is not designed to determine whether articles represent the consensus of the profession, nor is it an indication that the peer reviewer or Editorial Board agree with the author. That would be impossible, given the complexity of the issues that archivists face, and the diversity of views within the profession.
Brown Bag Lunch Discussions, RSVPs, and Scheduling
Many people have asked about how an article is selected for the brown bag lunch. The purpose of the brown bag discussions is to allow members of the profession to preview and discuss one article from the forthcoming issue of the journal (in this case, volume 82, number 2) before it goes to press. The selection of the article has always been by the Editor (not the Annual Meeting Program Committee), who has traditionally tried to identify an article on large social/professional issues that the profession faces. Below is a list of the previous selections:
As I have expressed since taking the position of Editor in 2018, I believe that it is vital for our journal to reflect the profession’s wider dialog around inclusion, diversity, and social justice. The Boles piece was the only one in the forthcoming issue of the journal directly on this topic, and I selected it in order to provide one venue for discussing the place, importance, and meaning of social justice as it relates to archives, archivists and records. The goal of the brown bag has always been to provide a venue for dialog; it is not intended to endorse or advocate for any specific positions taken by the author. However, I recognize that this may sound like an artificial distinction to those who are troubled by SAA providing a visible platform for discussing the piece.
There was the usual advance notice provided by SAA for the brown bag event. On June 19, SAA added an item to the ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2019 schedule about the brown bag selection. SAA also included information about the event in In the Loop beginning with the July 17 issue. As in previous years, the initial announcements did not yet include a link to the piece because the publisher, Allen Press, was still in the process of generating the page proof.
Questions were raised regarding the RSVP for participation in the event. As in previous years, this is a standard protocol used by SAA. Though it did not this year, some previous brown bag announcements have indicated “pre-registration required” or “limited enrollment.” The announcement has always included an RSVP for two reasons. First, the production of the page proof in time for the brown bag is always tight, and we did not know if we would be able to post it online when we announced the event, so we wanted a way to alert people of its availability. Second, we also wanted to know approximately how many people would attend and plan for logistics such as whether everyone would fit in the room. This has never precluded others from showing up at that time, but as with many other aspects of the Annual Meeting, having people sign up helps with planning. Luckily, Allen Press was able to generate the preprint quickly, and we added a link to the document from the online schedule on July 10 and added it to the In the Loop announcements on July 31.
Several people brought to our attention that the brown bag discussion was scheduled at the same time as an Annual Meeting forum about transgender identity organized by the SAA Diversity Committee. This was very unfortunate, but completely unintentional. There are numerous events happening and many moving parts to the Annual Meeting. The Annual Meeting planners do their best to balance the schedule, but there are always regrettable conflicts.
Listening and Planning Next Steps
The Editorial Board has been engaging in numerous activities related to the controversy raised by the Boles preprint. The most important of these activities has been doing a great deal of listening, both during and after the Annual Meeting, to the diverse and valuable perspectives shared. Our ultimate priority is to ensure that American Archivist is a venue that is welcoming and reflects a diversity of viewpoints.
The controversy was a major focus of discussion at our Editorial Board meeting in Austin on August 2. We also held a conference call on August 26, and with the approval of Council, we will be holding an in-person meeting in Chicago on October 27–29. Topics for discussion include (but are not limited to) engagement with the profession around issues raised by the Boles article, enhancing guidance for and feedback to peer reviewers, author and editorial guidelines, and processes for planning future brown bag events.
Aside from issues of process, many people have raised important critiques about the content of the Boles article. In order to give voice to these perspectives, we will be delaying publication of volume 82, number 2 so that we can also include those voices together with the Boles article, as supported by the Council. I have also been informed of concerns about specific inaccuracies and misattributions in the article. I have conveyed those concerns to the author so that he can address them. In order to minimize the impact on the other twenty seven authors of articles and book reviews in the forthcoming issue, we are pursuing early online publication of those contributions.
American Archivist serves as one of many forums that SAA offers for engagement around vital issues, including social justice. I hope that members of the profession express their views through those forums, including American Archivist. While we have asked several archivists to respond to Boles’s article, the Board welcomes contributions from anyone, now and in the future. Contributions can take the form of articles, which are subject to the peer review process, or letters to the editor. As reflected in the editorial policy, the journal has a long-standing tradition of receiving and publishing letters to the editor “commenting on recently published articles or other topics of interest to the profession.” There will always be an open invitation to engage with the literature. For those who would like to submit letters to be included in volume 82, number 2, I would ask you to please do so by October 31.
The archival profession faces many large societal issues. Archivists and archival scholars have raised vital issues for the profession to address in order to best document and contribute positively to the vast array of communities that we serve. It is my hope that our journal will reflect this discussion. I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to learn and grow with you.