Supporting Precarious Scholars in Eastern Europe: Addressing Barriers to Publishing in US and UK Journals

by Janine Holc, Loyola Univeristy Maryland

The news from Poland on academic freedom is not good. Litigation against scholars Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, ongoing attacks on Jan Gross, and renewed commitments to nationalized historiography at state institutions have been circulating through our social media and mainstream news outlets. Those of us specializing in Poland and in contact with colleagues there also know that these news stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Academics—who had always been in an economically precarious position—feel even more vulnerable as the government creates new policies that assess their publication and teaching by its own politicized standards. Compounding this shift is the overall climate encouraging excessive scrutiny directed at the work of anyone challenging the official stance on Polish history. Scholars are vulnerable elsewhere as well, especially in Hungary, Belarus, and Russia.

I know about these policies and the structural vulnerability they create from my acquaintances in Poland who are also scholars. The pandemic prevented travel, so I have been communicating more and more through new technologies and rediscovering old ones (or ones I had been unaware of, like free Facebook calling). Our conversations have become unhurried, and more personal. Through one of these conversations, my academic friend—whom I will call A. (they/them/their) to preserve their anonymity—and I began to discuss the importance of publishing in U.S. journals and the difficulties of decoding exactly what these journals require. I started to give A. some tips, which then blossomed into a full-on partnership in which I mentored them through the publication process for a single manuscript. This process was so transformative, so enriching for both of us, that I wondered if it could not be replicated on a larger scale. After a few e-mails and a meeting with ASEEES, the idea for this short essay was born: a description of my experience mentoring one academic with an eye toward creating a formal mentoring program supporting vulnerable scholars in Slavic Studies.

When we began our conversations, A. had already completed quite a bit of excellent research, produced multiple publications in Polish, and had a fluent command of English. I was familiar with their research area, although it was not identical to mine. I was also familiar with the conventions for publishing in Polish journals, so I understood the patterns and structure of their drafts and writing style. We decided that it would not be a co-authored piece and that I would not contribute anything to the content. A’s ultimate goal was to understand U.S. publication conventions so that they could continue without guidance in the future. The main purpose of our experiment was to decode the often-hidden conventions of U.S. journal publishing, a process I myself had to learn earlier in my career. These preconditions helped make the partnership work.

Why was a publication in the U.S. so crucial? The answer lies in the government’s academic scoring system, informally called “punktoza” by academics, a recently created assessment regime that assigns value to specific journals, book presses and conferences. Punktoza is embedded in “parametryzacja,” the Polish version of accreditation for universities. In this system—designed by the Ministry of Education—each department or institute, rather than the university as a whole, is assessed, which in turn determines state funding. Parametryzacja forces both individuals and departments (or institutes) to prioritize an accumulation of points. So-called “punktoza scores” are issued through a massive document, altered periodically, and are available on Poland’s Ministry of Education and Science website. Its current iteration reserves the highest number of points for U.S. journals. In other words, it differentially values both Polish and U.S. journals according to the governing regime’s priorities regarding nationalized historiography and related disciplines. The government has, for example, assigned a low number of points to Zagłada Żydów, an excellent journal on the Holocaust (20), and a high number to various U.S. journals (for example, Slavic Review has 140). Combined with the ever-present possibility of one’s contract not being renewed for low productivity, publishing in a U.S. (or U.K.)  journal is almost required for professional survival—for individuals and for entire departments. The high status of U.S. and U.K. journals in academic publishing also reminds us of the equity implications of demanding fluent English, a theme developed in the “native speakerism” scholarship in critical linguistics. In fact, not only fluent English but a specialized academic English is another barrier that journal editors are familiar with but that does not actually reflect the quality of the research itself.

Thus, our first task was to identify some target journals from the punktoza list with high points and decode their “scope and mission” statements, as well as go through recent issues. We then spent time figuring out the structure of recently published articles in the journal on which they decided, such as how much space was generally used for literature review, how empirical, if a methodological discussion was required, and so on. Some of this was “mentoring” on my part but a lot of it was processed together in conversation. We then went through successive drafts, meeting once a week for one or two hours. Near the end of the process there was the infamous “Scholar One Manuscript” interface with which we had to grapple. Four months from our first punktoza discussion, the manuscript was submitted, and the reviews have since arrived. A. is confident they can move on to their next piece. And I learned in a very precise way exactly how unequal our academic systems are and what it means to work in a setting in which academic freedom does not function. 

So how did our experience work in terms of the nuts and bolts? 

• Because A. was unsure of how any overheard conversations would be received at their university department, we spoke while they were at home. This meant they did not have access to Zoom, recent versions of Adobe, or recent versions of Word. 
• We decided to use Skype and set a regular time to meet. For us it was Saturday morning (U.S. time) before my family was up and about.
• We used Google Docs, which worked perfectly. We could look at the document simultaneously while on Skype and keep track of changes. A. could easily work on it wherever they were. It did not require any updated software and I could type in idiomatic expressions or Americanized versions of terms while we were speaking in real time. That said, I did not translate their writing, as they wrote well in English.
• We were not working on a deadline. This allowed us to cancel when needed (which happened a few times) and also to talk about my own research, learn new Polish expressions, share teaching experiences, and the like. Looking back, this was important to creating a relational dynamic with some mutuality and reciprocity. 
• The heavy lifting for A. included changing the narrative’s structure, organization, shifting from passive constructions to active voice, assuming a non-Polish audience, and becoming more aware of citational practices—whom to include, whom to leave out. Most important was the need to emphasize the unique contribution of the work rather than how well it fit with what we already know. 
• There were also small technical details that mattered. For example, the choice of keywords shifted to match a more global audience. (For a journal in Poland you do not need the keyword, “Poland.”) As noted above, the interface for submission is difficult to decode for any of us. The rules at play here are which boxes are best to fill in and which can be ignored. One box asked for a “cc e-mail,” a term not used in Poland. 
• There were also painful moments when A. told me they could not use particular terms and had to avoid referring to specific past events for fear of being targeted by the government, conservative colleagues, or challenged by others at their university. I could see firsthand the psychological and intellectual labor required to dance around the academic regime in place. 

The reviewers’ comments were another issue. Their informalities, colloquialisms, confusing sentence structures and mix of description, positive remarks and requests for revision meant yet another type of translation was again required from me for A. Example: “The author notes in passing...” was understandable to A. in a literal sense but not in the context of a review. In addition, I shared with A. my approach to documenting revisions: that formal academic language is not required and often simply a phrase such as, “agreed, correct date inserted” was sufficient.

In the end, we each had a deepened understanding of how academia functions in our respective home countries. I also felt that more scholars could benefit from a similar process. Journal editors, ASEEES, and people like Andrzej Tymowski have been working with academics in other countries on these very processes. But some editors have also told me that they continue to receive manuscripts based on excellent research but are in no shape for publication. Some of what we struggled with could be easily fixed, such as making a video available for guidance through the Scholar One submission form. Most steps, however, require an ongoing human interaction.
Not everyone wants to give up an hour a week for more academic labor, especially after this extraordinarily difficult year and a half. There is also the sensitive issue of the possible exploitation of these scholars’ work, and so some oversight might be necessary. But my hope is that there are others in the field who have already published and are in stable positions, and who might wish to contribute to designing a mentoring system to support our colleagues struggling in settings of nationalized precarity. Many of us are searching for ways to address the oppressive systems in the very settings from which we have built our CVs and publications, and I thank ASEEES for opening up this possibility.

Janine Holc is Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. She has published research on Poland on topics including democratization, gender politics, and Holocaust memory. Her current project is on Polish Jewish girls and women in slave labor during World War II. 

Editor's note: This blog first appeared in the June 2021 NewsNet. Please refer to the original article for footnotes.