DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/9 January) – Last month, when I sent Fr. Dan McNamara’s article for Tambara guest editor Jojo Abinales to review, Jojo wanted to know why a physics paper was being considered for Tambara, a journal publication that is known to address Mindanao issues. I reminded Jojo that Tambara has the mission to inspire “discourse on Mindanao issues and by scholars in Mindanao.” Daniel J. McNamara, SAS dean at ADDU, would qualify as a Mindanao scholar.
Besides, it wasn’t entirely a physics paper only. The God Question in Contemporary Physics was as much a theological reflection as it was a defense of the anthropic principle and intelligent design. The Tambara is multi-disciplinary, accepting papers from the humanities, social sciences, philosophy, and theology.
Fr. Dan had been shopping around to have this article published for some time already. He had originally submitted this to another journal that seemed to have stopped publishing more years than we care to count. In January last year, Fr. Dan finally came down to the Tambara editorial office with his USB and saved the article on our computer. I gave the article a once-over and suggested for him to indeed contemporize contemporary physics by adding a comment on Stephen Hawking’s recent pronouncement to the effect that Creation did not require Divine Intervention.
Some weeks later, Fr. Dan was back in the office to download an updated version of his Contemporary Physics article. “Gail would be happy with this,” he told Ate Lani.
He was right. I thought it would make a novel reflection piece for the Jesuit Notes section.
We had a problem, though. Nobody on the editorial board was a physicist, much less a rocket scientist like Fr. Dan. So how were we to edit his paper?
I asked one of our associate editors to find qualified reviewers for Fr. Dan’s piece. That was the last time I personally heard from the guy. He really didn’t think I was serious about the assignment. He thought I was joking when I asked for a review of our dean’s submission. So, for a while, I did become the butt of jokes in the academic council meetings that my associate editor attended. I got to hear how they laughed about what an upstart I was to require Fr. Dan’s piece to be reviewed. Like, just where do I get off having our dean – a Jesuit and a rocket scientist – reviewed?
Some confusion there. I was beginning to see that editing was too specialized a concern, as obscure perhaps as rocket science is to the ordinary academic. No, editing is not about the arrogant temerity of a psychologist to correct or censor what a rocket scientist has to say about physics. It is about making sure that whatever he wants committed on paper, he’s got it right.
So goodbye, associate editor. Welcome guest editor Jojo Abinales who understands academic publishing so much better.
Back to Fr. Dan’s paper, and a closer look would tell the reader that what he wrote wasn’t about rocket science. In fact, those squiggles and formulae looked kind of familiar from the introductory physics lec and lab that I took in my sophomore year half a century ago. So we didn’t really need an astrogeophysicist like Fr. Dan or a retired astronaut from NASA to make heads or tails of the physics part.
Months later, our quest led us to a theoretical physicist half-way around the world who felt most honored to be asked to review. Denden Ferolin suggested also that we try her professor at MSU-IIT. Reynaldo Vequizo held a PhD in Advanced Materials Science and Technology. He heads the MSU-IIT Physics Department; and the way he tells it, they spent much time at a departmental meeting just discussing that paper. Physicists, he said, are rarely asked to review. And then, more rarely are they asked to review a paper that puts physics and God together. The topic set off animated collegial debate.
Indeed, if the mission of Tambara was to inspire discourse on something a Mindanao scholar had written, that indeed was proof enough that we were meeting our objective. By the time Pam Castrillo was done ironing out the technical edits to Fr. Dan’s paper, even the faculty at the College of Engineering had been mercilessly ambushed to vet the notations and citations.
Fr. Dan is a joy to work with. He was a most cooperative author, always taking the time to get back to us on our questions, unlike some other contributors who lost patience and emailed me an “As far as I’m concerned, yan na yan!” That elicited merry laughter from our end, earning us quizzical looks from those who don’t understand what an adventure editing could be. Fr. Dan would visit the Tambara editorial office one more time to deliver a hard copy of his latest revision, clarifying details of his cited references.
With the three of us on the board giving the final article a thumbs up, it did see print in volume 28. We were to find out, however, that months before another journal had salvaged Fr. Dan’s original draft and published it in toto, complete with the reference to a purple dot, which would be impossible to find as the article was printed in black ink. It also directed the reader to points x and y that were nowhere indicated in the figure provided.
Obscure points, perhaps – something that subscribers who just acquire the journal for the snob appeal of displaying it on their bookshelf would miss. Those obscure points do spell the difference between editors who edit and those who just call themselves editors. And for academic journal editors, in particular, we owe the author the courtesy to make him look good for all who read, and especially when the author is a rocket scientist. And a Jesuit. And the dean to boot!
So I guess the lesson is that when something is not within one’s expertise, it’s time to try the Delphi method. Ask the experts. Because there are experts out there, but some associate editors would never know how to go about looking for them and persuading them to do a blind review. In which case, the decent recourse really is to step aside so those who know what to do could get the job done right. As Fr. Dan says, the peer review is the sine qua non to university level publishing. Amen.
(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)