Article excerpt

In praise of reviewers

When I was young and foolish (and addicted to Yeats and Joyce) I would send my poetry to those ephemeral plain-cover magazines that proliferated after the war, with names like Saris and Stand, and count the hours and months until my manuscript should return, garlanded with grateful acceptance. But these editors were a surly, superior lot, given to dismissive one-liners such as "no" or "no!!" or the more conciliatory "sorry, not for us". Only Howard Sergeant, editor of Outposts seemed prepared to address the sensitivities of a proud, mad 18 year-old nursing an escape from the day job. He laid out my gibberish like a patient on a slab, explaining that the bits that made a loud noise were not as useful as the bits that made sense--but keep going all the same, "write and write!" Courtesy costs so little and is worth so much that I'm surprised it's not more popular; but courtesy combined with encouragement is manna from heaven. Courtesy not only uplifts the promising, but inhibits the truly dreadful--much more effectively than abuse. The arrogant actually love abuse and feel obliged to return it with knobs on. Editors need to know this.

This prompts me to offer a few comments about the way this journal selects its papers. Antiquity publishes around 80 articles a year and rejects over twice as many, so its editor writes about 250 decision letters to go with each volume of the journal. While there are many ways a piece of research can miss a journal's target, the usual reason for our decision can be summed up in the term global significance. Antiquity exists to enable archaeologists to tell other archaeologists what they are doing and why it's interesting to all. Thus, a paper should be written as though "addressed to a professional colleague working in a different time-period on another continent". I have written variations on this phrase so many hundreds of times that I fear that authors still don't get it. Some researchers view their subject so narrowly that their articles appear to be composed solely for the benefit of the two people who agree with them and the six people who hate them. But the inclusion of the wider profession is not merely virtuous; it is the only way that the social value of a piece of research can be assessed. And that's the game we're in.

Accepted authors are invited to refurbish their texts and improve the pictures, a process that can be repeated more than once. Those who are rejected ("declined" in our language) are nevertheless sometimes offered suggestions about which other publisher could be interested. It is important to show declined researchers that they remain honourable members of our community, if only because their work is often exemplary. Ten years ago we still received contributions from amiable eccentrics who had unravelled this or that mysterious conundrum or discovered a link between Stonehenge, Moundville, the Knights Templar and Mars. These are unusual now: virtually all submissions to Antiquity are notable for their high quality and serious intent. Our journal serves academia, it serves the broader profession (the 80 per cent of researching archaeologists not in universities); it serves officials and it serves amateurs; it serves authors; but the ultimate judge and jury on the quality and relevance of what is published there are those who read it. The editor must second guess what readers will think of the work now, and in 10, 50, 100 years' time. The editor carries the can, but carries it on behalf of readers.

None of this would possible, or even desirable, without the assistance of peer-reviewers, a group of unselfish, unpaid experts upon whose diligent participation the whole knowledge industry depends. When I took over this journal, responses were sent to authors in the form of a sanitized precis in which the views of the reviewers and the editor were interwoven. This was partly because some reviewers enjoy being amusingly (and woundingly) caustic at the expense of researchers, whom they see as situated, so to speak, in another room. …