An Update on Journal Publishing and a Plea for our Discipline in the Time of Pandemic

Andrea R. Jain

Editor, Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Since March 11, 2020, the day the World Health Organization announced that the spread of the COVID-19 virus was officially a pandemic, I have been worried in my role as the editor of the JAAR. Unsettled as I felt things recede into an unknown future, I have been beset with questions: Would there be delays in production? Would fewer people have time to review submissions and write book reviews? Would the number of manuscript submissions drop? Would fewer women submit manuscripts?

Within just a few weeks, some of those fears came to life.

First, the pandemic significantly impacted the JAAR’s publisher, Oxford University Press. On March 24, the government of India ordered a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. OUP production takes place in India. Our OUP team has done everything they can to minimize disruptions in production and distribution. Nevertheless there have already been small challenges in maintaining the usual speed at which we get through the production process and see articles and book reviews published online and in the supply of print copies to international members (OUP had to adjust the print and distribution strategy for the JAAR in the short term, shifting to a model in which they continue to print copies but only mail them to domestic AAR members and personal subscribers).

Second, and more alarming, submissions by women dropped, although the number of submissions to the JAAR remained steady. I am not exaggerating when I say that almost all of the article submissions I have received in the time of the pandemic have come from men. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed notes that other journal editors are seeing similar trends. Another New York Times article confirmed what many of us suspected: pandemic-era domestic labor is not being divided equitably. The pandemic has not thwarted our heteropatriarchal culture and its assumptions that the majority of emotional and family labor should fall in the laps of women. And now that daycares and schools have shut down and our students are emotionally overwhelmed and in some cases financially burdened, we are feeling the ways the crisis impacts many of our women colleagues to a greater degree.

Before the pandemic, there was already inadequate attention to and questioning of the dominance and normativity of not just gender but also racial and class privilege in the cultural construction of religious studies. For that reason, when I stepped into the role of editor and shared my vision for the JAAR, I called for more scholarship on disciplinary reflexivity. The AAR president José Ignacio Cabezón articulated a similar request in his 2020 theme for the AAR, “The AAR as a Scholarly Guild.” In his call, Prof. Cabezón asked for more attention to matters of the guild, including “the demographics of our membership” and the question of “what challenges have traditionally marginalized groups faced (and face) in the Academy?”

In the 111 years since the 1909 founding of our guild as the National Association of Biblical Instructors, the precursor of the AAR (1963), and the 1937 establishment of the Journal of Bible and Religion, the precursor of the JAAR (1966), we have made progress, though not always steady or linear, toward diversifying the religious traditions and cultures we study, the theories and methods we use and develop, and the publication media through which we disseminate our scholarship. Diversity in our demographics and also and more importantly in our leadership positions and in publications has been critical to and necessary for anything that could be framed as “progress.”  

We now find ourselves facing a new global crisis. As we meander our way through it, we risk, perhaps more than ever, reproducing privilege in the breadth of our scholarly pursuits and coverage, in our theories and methods, and in our publishing practices.

I write today to address that risk and to plead with you, with every member of the AAR, to help me in my role as the editor of our discipline’s journal of record to think about how we can continue to improve equity in our publishing practices, and in so doing extend their scope and quality, making decisions that will, if slowly and even at first imperceptibly, shift the burden of inequity from traditionally marginalized groups to those in positions of privilege and power. Let us work together intentionally to prevent what could otherwise be an irreparable disciplinary regression. The inequities that this pandemic is intensifying could lead to a moral crisis for our discipline. The choices we make will necessarily be political and historical, but they need not be at the dictate of prescribed social roles or economics.

Many of our colleagues are facing a choice forced upon them: meet the needs of my family and students or the mandates of my profession and the demand to “publish or perish.” I myself live within this dilemma as a single, working mom with two sons who are just four and six years old. They are here with me right now; as I write, they run wild. My family is nevertheless doing well through this time. We have a small, reliable quarantine circle, so I am not on my own. Yet the work continues to pile up at its usual pace even as I have far less time (and focus) to complete it. I cut corners and fall behind. I remind myself, like I tell my friends and colleagues, that we are worth more than our productivity or basic utility. That is easy for me to say from my privileged position, tenured and the editor of the JAAR.

The duty of those of us in positions of privilege and power is to not simply engage in virtue signaling but to come up with concrete strategies to pursue greater equity in our publishing practices during this pandemic. I ask you all to reach out to me directly (jaareditor@aarweb.org) and help me by sharing your ideas for how we can press harder than ever during this pandemic against the insidious actions of those who care more about the virtues of competition and the capital of productivity than the pursuit of equity in our guild and the quality of our scholarship.