Devolved Voices – Transparency and Trust

Peter Barry

In our work on the ‘Devolved Voices’ project so far, we have tried to spell out precisely what we mean by some of our key concepts. We are studying ‘emergent’ poets of the post-1997 period in Wales, but what exactly is ‘emergence’? We tried to define it precisely and objectively in one of our first documents. I think we were right to do so, as we want the principles by which we are making our choices and emphases to be as transparent as possible.

However, I haven’t always felt exactly as I do now about transparency. I edited an academic journal for 20 years, during the period when the notion of peer reviewing was becoming established in the UK as the litmus test of academic quality. But at the heart of every journal is an inner core of day-to-day practice which is simply unknowable to outsiders. Exactly who decides what, and exactly how, is not always open to external audit, and is not necessarily the same as official policy might dictate.

For instance, I would sometimes receive an essay from a famous academic, accompanied by an oddly self-effacing note. I would think, ‘That can’t really be the famous Prof X – s/he wouldn’t write a cover-note of that self-deprecating kind’. But on a number of occasions, involving different people, it really was the Prof X.

It was evident to me that having a piece by this person in the journal would be noticed, and would improve our standing. What should I do? Should I render it anonymous, and send it out to two academic readers, letting it take its chance, as if it were the work of an early-career beginner? Or should I make the decision myself and take responsibility for it?

If the article turned out to be not so good, even that might be a noteworthy and significant fact, simply because it was by Prof X, and would give some indication of that person’s latest thinking. As a fairly new editor, whenever I went against this principle of seizing an opportunity and taking editorial responsibility, I later regretted it and felt I had been over-timid.

The submission which focuses this issue for me now, was written by a household-name. It was a speculative article about the sex-life of the young George Eliot, based on an interpretation of the coded sex diary of a figure associated with her. I agonised about it for several weeks, and have never before mentioned it to anybody. Was this not a sexist piece, I said to myself, irrelevant to the novelist’s worth and standing as a writer? Should I not high-mindedly reject it? And so on. Eventually, I did reject it, in that self-flattering spirit, but I now know I was wrong.

It would have been an unmistakably news-worthy item, and I should have had the courage to publish it, tipping off national media in advance about its contents. That is what a proper editor would have done, one who was an editor through and through, in spite of the obvious personal and academic risks involved

So what lessons do I take from that experience for Devolved Voices? It’s something like this: Yes, I want our procedures to have the maximum possible transparency, and, yes, I want us to be able to show the principles by which we are working. But in the end, we have to make the judgements, and we have to take the responsibility for doing so. In the last analysis, that is what the money entrusted to us is for.

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