An Editor's Broadside

March 10, 2010

By definition, businesses and organizations need to keep their customers or users satisfied, which is why you don't typically see editors taking potshots at their readers in the pages of their publications.

But editors are human, too, and frustration sometimes gets the better of them. So it appears to have been with Hugh Murphy, editor of The Mariner's Mirror, a quarterly journal published by the British-based Society for Nautical Research. Like those of many scholarly journals in applied fields (Mariner's Mirror describes itself as the "pre-eminent English-language journal on naval and maritime history, nautical archaeology and all aspects of seafaring and lore of the sea"), its readers are a mix of academics, scientists and others. University types probably make up enough of its audience, though, that slamming them is a dicey proposition.

Yet in an editorial in the journal's November 2009 issue, Hugh Murphy, its honorary editor, let rip a broadside about the quality of submissions to the journal (and, by extension, the scholars submitting them), which he laid at the feet of maritime history programs at Britain's universities.

"It has been your editor's experience since taking responsibility for this journal, that standards of submissions, particularly from postgraduates and university lecturers, have seriously slipped," the editorial began, comparing contributions from academics unfavorably to those from the society's non-academic members.

The "many substandard submissions reaching your editor," Murphy wrote, raise questions about the "level of supervision internally and externally of M.A. and Ph.D. candidates" in British naval history programs. "If maritime history is to be seriously compared to other academic subjects then it drastically needs to raise standards," and "if maritime history is to survive at all in the university sector, then it needs to attract the best students and the best new lecturers."

Murphy, a visiting reader in maritime history at the National Maritime Museum, did not stop there, but proceeded to a broader condemnation of Britain's regard for the study of history. "University vice chancellors need to raise their game and take the study of history seriously: history is already under attack as a separate subject, and in certain universities it has disappeared completely. At secondary schools level the study of history (and geography, and modern languages) is no longer a requirement of the National Curriculum for 14- to 16-year-olds."

"It is often bemoaned that there is no critical mass in maritime history in British universities and elsewhere, and this is essentially true. Nevertheless, the fully peer-reviewed journal such as The Mariner's Mirror exists as a flagship for the discipline : and practitioners and postgraduates in the university sector need to be reminded of this and raise their game accordingly."

The idea of Physical Review blasting American university physics departments or PMLA slamming language scholars is hard to imagine, and Murphy's editorial did not sit well with his peers at British universities -- though several declined Inside Higher Ed's requests for a response.

The journal's February issue, though, brought a subtle response from the chairman of Mariner's Mirror's editorial board, Richard Harding, a naval historian and professor of organizational history at the University of Westminster. In his "chairman's column," which was mostly about the status of the journal as it celebrates its centenary this year, Harding referenced Murphy's "reflections upon a link between submissions to the journal and the state of the education system."

"Very few people with experience of working in higher education would be able to make the link with such magisterial certainty," Harding said with very British understatement. "My own twenty-five years direct experience in assessing standards across disciplines, across sectors and across national borders is that when seriously studied such claims (which are quite common) suffer from slippery definitions and highly ambiguous evidence. Consequently, reliable correlations of cause and effect are extremely rare."

Harding suggested an alternative explanation for why, if Murphy's diagnosis of the problem is accurate, the quality of submissions to the journal might have slipped.

With the spread of online and other venues, producers of maritime research now have many more places to publish their work, Harding wrote. It's unlikely that scholars are producing no high-quality work, as Murphy implies; "[m]ore likely, there is plenty of excellent work being done, but it is not finding its way to the Mirror or that which is does not fit our guidelines as closely as we would wish. If this is so, it is our task to encourage the best research that fits our purpose."

Asked via e-mail if he wished to respond, or regretted writing what he did, Murphy said he was precluded from speaking further by the nautical research society's ethical code. Still, he couldn't resist adding:

"Suffice it to say, I am not the most popular person in academia as a result of the editorial, but I stand by every word."

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