From making the Board of Trustees more accountable to switching to the editorial collective model, there are several changes that could make running EPW smoother and more transparent.
This is the second article in a two-part series on recent events at EPW and where to go from here. You can read the first part here.
The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) does not resemble any standard template when it comes to its decision making, management and governance structures. Most social science journals are now owned by major publishing houses. As such, production, financial and legal oversight responsibilities are vested in the specialist units of these huge corporate publishers. Some other journals continue to be owned by universities and run from specific departments or staff; here again, the higher-level functions are lodged at the university level.
Almost as a rule, all manuscript business, from submission to publication, is handled by a hands-on editorial team comprising specialist academic staff with the publisher typically providing back room technical, editorial and logistical cover. Further, virtually every social science journal has a list of eminent advisory editors, whose services are more ornamental than real, though many journals do have an intermediate level of contributing regional editors. EPW, in contrast, is virtually its own publisher and proprietor; it does not have any intermediate advisory editorial board; and despite the explosion in throughput and diversity, continues to rely on a single editor rather than an editorial team. Is this the way to go?
An accountable Board of Trustees
Take first the top end of the governance pyramid: the Board of Trustees. At the start, and the end, of the day, their task is to ensure that the mandate of the journal is honoured, to discreetly review and monitor developments, to provide enabling guidance as and when sought or deemed appropriate, and to safeguard and underwrite the autonomy of the editor over all substantive content issues. Holding up such a protective and facilitating umbrella would need to cover many spaces: finance, technological, legal, industrial, organisational and also, of course, academic. Such competencies could either be accommodated within the Board, relying on specialists who, while not being full-time academics, nevertheless are strong members of the EPW community; or alternatively, such specialised inputs could be accessed externally, while keeping the Board composition more oriented towards academic research and public debate.
In the reverse direction, the Board would need to strictly keep its nose out of substantive manuscript and editorial affairs. This form of self-restraint can sometimes prove difficult for senior academics, where eminence and egos often form a package deal. The outgoing editor’s polite response to the letter of EPW staff alleging editorial impropriety on his part cites cases of editorial interference from individual members of the Board with regard to particular authors and articles. One wonders if all this happened under the nose of the chair or under the table of the Board, and what corrective action ensued.
The Board, it seems from what is reported, is not subject to any external review, is not accountable to any peer or superior entity, appoints itself and then just carries on without limitation of tenure, a law unto itself. Can this really be true? Is EPW a feudal fiefdom gifted in perpetuity by some firman, a family jagir, does the gang of eight hold a 99-year lease? If so, whichever elders originally devised this construction got this part of the structural design spectacularly wrong, and those inheriting it seem to have, whether due to convenience, complacency or complicity, just carried on being preciously irreplaceable. An obvious concern could be that over untenured time, that deadly irreversible syndrome, we-know-bestitis, could set in, with the Board sliding by default into a collective state of mind where it forgets the separation between a worthy assiduous trustee and a pompous authoritarian proprietor. Knowing well the high intellectual calibre of the incumbents, it is worrying that, in the absence of satisfactory resolutions, not just the credibility of the journal but also of these academic stalwarts suffers serious reputational damage with each passing day.
Three kinds of reform and reformulations seem necessary at the level of the Board. First, there are choices about size, composition and competencies. Criteria should apply not just for the selection of individuals, but also for obtaining a desirable balance of capabilities, both academic and professional, within the Board. Second, there are the normal questions of tenure, chair and rotation. Finite tenured terms need to be set for members and the chair, with provisions for the staggered, rolling retirement of old and appointment of new members to the Board, and a change of chair duties after an appropriate term of office. The Board as presently constituted seems to violate all these standard governance norms and parameters. Third, who monitors the monitors? Who appoints the members of the Board and holds them accountable for fulfilling their mandate and not exceeding their remit? There seems to be a void here that needs filling, perhaps by some kind of collegium purposefully constituted – but how, and by whom?
An intermediate level: A board of advisory editors?
Then there is the intermediate level comprising usually a board of advisory editors drawn from a journal’s epistemic community, names that collectively represent the public face and orientation of the journal and (are expected to) serve as its ambassadors and good-will carriers. Almost all social science journals have such a board, but not EPW. Should it? On balance, my personal sense, for several reasons, is that EPW is right in not having such an advisory board.
First, it does not need the roving ambassadors; EPW has its goodwill already well established in academic and wider circles. If anything, EPW’s reputation could be a hostage to fortune and even put at some risk from the individual activities or interventions of specific advisory editors whether in academia or public space.
Second, lists tend to gain permanence, and just as taking people on board creates goodwill, telling them to drop off does tend to have the opposite effect. And while those on the list might feel appreciated, a multiple of that number might quietly feel disappointed or aggrieved for having been overlooked.
Third, an advisory board is best when it is ornamental; editors dread an unsolicited flow of suggestions and recommendations from such advisors.
Finally, I wish I could be persuaded that this would not invite bad insider behaviour from members of any advisory board – recommending some authors, wanting their own work to short-circuit review procedures, jumping queues, etc. There is a real danger of partial capture, or at least undue influence in editorial decision making on a frequent basis. In due course, this could imply a two-track system and also make nonsense of any fair peer-review mechanisms. For these, and additional logistical and administrative considerations, I would not recommend inserting such an intermediate advisory level into the overall editorial structure.
The engine room: From the editor to an editorial collective?
Editorially, EPW has thus far always been essentially a one-person show. Founding editors, like intellectual baron-entrepreneurs, have generally functioned in exalted singularity. Sachin Chaudhuri for Economic (and Political) Weekly, Samar Sen for Frontier, Nikhil Chakravarty for Mainstream (and in a different genre Mulk Raj Anand at Marg) spring to mind. Inspirational as these pioneering editors have been in their own era, it might be time to reconsider this model and to move from the single editor set-up to some version of a round table editorial collective with an appropriate, possibly rotating, chair. I moot this for four reasons.
First, the subject domain has expanded phenomenally over time, and this is true for all social science and development studies journals. This poses a challenge for the single-editor model. No single intellectual can really claim commanding expertise across such a broad spectrum of disciplines, themes, regions, from historical explorations to contemporary policy and public debates to activist analyses, to be able to exercise the functions of discrimination, evaluation and selection with or without peer reviews; any person claiming otherwise would have to be curiously unusual.
Second, there has been an exponential rise in the throughput of journals, pushed perhaps by the new professional and career requirements of the publish-or-perish type. Roughly speaking, one gathers that 15 years ago EPW got about 35-40 articles per week against the 2-4 slots available; five years ago, the number had risen to 75-80 per week; one can only guess that at present, the number might well exceed 100 per week, or anything like 5,000 submissions per year. Assume, for the sake of argument (holding in abeyance all the complexities of commissioning etc), that 250 can be carried per year; this implies an acceptance rate of one in every 20 submissions. But for that one piece to get through, perhaps as many as 4-5 might need to be processed and put through the review mill, i.e., over a 1000 items to handle. Desk rejects, whether done casually or scrupulously, are easy-peasy (though still only up to a point) when compared with the disproportionate workloads involved in each article to be reviewed. It is not easy to find willing and able reviewers; then to keep them to time and extract the reviews from them; then to editorially review the referees’ reports and cull feedback for authors; and then to go through probably another cycle or two when the revised article is submitted.
In my direct experience, it is commonplace to have to approach anything up to ten academics with relevant expertise before two agree to the task and the process can take weeks. There are two immediate requirements set up by this gargantuan workload: a superbly functioning and happy backroom that the editor can rely on; and second, the need to clone one editor into many, since this task simply cannot under any circumstances be performed by a single editor while guaranteeing academic quality assurance and ethical standards in unbiased selection decisions and subsequent interactions on the revision of manuscripts under consideration.
I am aware of the spectrum of views with regard to whether EPW should go down the peer-review path or not, and for a variety of reasons I would come down firmly in favour of double-blind review procedures for each and every special article; and a couple of readings, say one internal and another external as deemed appropriate, for all other opinion and shorter pieces. It follows that under such arrangements, articles such as the Adani pieces now under the microscope and hammer would have been subjected to a peer-review process, apart possibly from an extra layer of internal legal vetting and assessment prior to the decision to run (with) it. And for a journal with such a heavy share of opinion pieces, it would be essential to ensure at least a second reading of such pieces – here, two heads would almost definitely provide value addition in terms of quality and probity.
Third, the editor’s task extends well beyond decision making with respect to submitted manuscripts. There is more to the journal than manuscript business, and the submerged part of the iceberg covers vital short and long-run strategic activities: worrying about the finances and business model for print and online versions; digitalisation of access to all journal materials; subscription arrangements which nowadays are extremely complex and are usually handled by the big publishing houses that own journals, or in the case of EPW, to be handled by themselves; planning substantive academic innovations; hunting and gathering good content and authors; printing and distribution including possibly improving the templates, layouts, get-ups etc. (in this regard, remember Ramachandra Guha’s lament); following bibliometrics and other accreditation issues; tracking evolving open access industrial dynamics; raising advertisement revenues; dealing with the fury of authors scorned; representing the journal in various national and international platforms.
All this, before having to deal with the Board of Trustees on the one side, and the time and energy consuming issues of sustaining a viable, efficient and happy back office, covering matters of salary and leave, pensions and taxes, office space, hard and software – and one could carry on. The demanding challenges emanating from dynamic academic, industry and societal contexts and conjunctures cannot all be additionally dumped on the shoulders of a single editor. Surely many of these tasks are delegated to support staff, but then the editor has to direct and monitor them. It is also worth remembering that most of these functions straddle the “administrative” and “academic” domains, and the editor cannot simply delegate and disappear into “pure” academic functions. I am aware that there would be some resource implications in such a change, but here again there are options for limiting the extra budgetary requirements.
Fourth, a difficulty with the single-editor model is that it weakens internal checks and balances. And so there is the inevitable, inexorable tendency for the contents and orientation of the journal to bit-by-bit begin to follow the nose and vision, the predilections and preferences of the editor. Plurality of perspectives and singularity in editorial decision making can sometimes make for an awkward relationship.
This crisis throws up a rare opportunity to audit and rethink the editorial model in holistic terms. While good architecture does not guarantee good decisions, more functional and responsive structures and processes could have preempted some of the problems at the heart of this (and the previous) debacle. But equally, many of these problems derive in essence from poor judgement and specific decisions made by groups of people, irrespective of abstract notions of structural shapes and forms. Arguably, the architecture and the incumbents both need a thorough overhaul. It should be obvious that this task cannot be an internal job to be entrusted to trustees in whom trust seems to be depleting. In any case, there would be a conflict of interest with the Board itself being under the microscope.
Indeed, the question arises whether the present Board of Trustees remains fit for purpose. Perhaps a change of team might do no harm at all; it might even help clear the air and sweep away any perceived personalised constraints to change. It would be appropriate to set up a small independent working group with a wide-ranging remit to reflect on all aspects of EPW governance and decision-making structures and processes, and place their findings and recommendations in the public domain for wider debate and engagement by the EPW community. But who will bell the cat? While there appears to be a constitutional and executive void here, the sense of the public exchanges has been quite unequivocal: if the Board of Trustees cannot walk the talk, it should perhaps do the decent thing and walk the plank.
Ashwani Saith is professor emeritus at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, and former chair and director of the Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics. He is editor and current chair of the editorial collective of Development and Change, and was a street seller of past issues of Economic Weekly and subscriptions to Economic and Political Weekly during its 1960s crisis.