The Challenge of Editing the EPW-II

BY C. RAMMANOHAR REDDY| IN Opinion | 10/08/2017
How did it maintain a fine balance between political commentary and academic research? How did it cope with trends in academia?
Former EPW editor C. RAMMANOHAR REDDY recalls the challenges
Reddy with EPW staff at the journal's office.

 

Krishna Raj died suddenly in early 2004. He had been EPW itself for more than three decades and had more or less single handedly built up the weekly.Would EPW now survive without him was a question many asked. A.G. Noorani, the eminent columnist, told me later that he had not been sure if EPW would survive Raj’s passing.

Padma Prakash, deputy editor, was acting editor for more than six months before I was appointed editor in late 2004 when the journal’s standing in India and outside had long since been established.  It was known as a “Left” journal but in the mid 1990s it had become more friendly to economic reforms. Yet it retained its questioning of the state and communal violence.

With the generous support of a firm, Myiris.com, EPW had by 1998 gone digital. It had its own web site though the archives went back only a few years.However, EPW seemed to be asking for a fresh impetus. As a reader of 25 years, I thought it had become a bit tired. I realised only later that Raj had been struggling to keep it going for 35 years and that this perhaps had led to a fatigue that had seeped into the journal.

My background was both similar to, as well as dissimilar from, that of Chaudhuri and  Raj. Like them, I had a background in economics and had a brief stint in academics. I had then drifted into journalism. I had been in the media for 15 years prior to joining EPW but had retained some touch with academics.

Where I was very different from the two legendary editors was that while they had joined/established EPW when they were still young and had grown with it, I was joining the organisation after a working life elsewhere of over two decades. I still did not see myself as an “outsider” because I had also grown up reading EPW. There was a sense of awe entering the organisation and a feeling of honour as well at being asked to be its editor.

The EPW community and my new colleagues were soon convinced that I was committed to the organisation and that there would indeed be an EPW after Krishna Raj.

 

Changes with continuity

Over the next 11 years and some months, the EPW did many things which, I believe, made it more lively and current. We were much quicker to produce commentary on contemporary events. We also tried to adapt to the changes in the publishing/media world and tried to respond to the needs of EPW’s heterogeneous groups or readers and writers. By the mid 2000s, the EPW web site had been vastly expanded in functionality and content.

Of course, on the way we made mistakes and were also not able to complete all the things we wanted to do. (More on that below.) But I think the reason we succeeded was essentially because we kept intact the basic structure of the journal even as we made many changes around it. We did not introduce change for the sake of change.

Looking back, I think another important reason for the success was that EPW was able to call up to a large degree the same dedication that the small administrative, production and editorial staff had shown in the previous four decades.

Yet there were always unique editorial challenges in this unique journal which we needed to be constantly aware of. These where those I would think of as the “multiple identities” of EPW.

 

(i) A Journal of Two Halves

A journal with commentary on current affairs in the first half (the commentary section) and academic papers in the second half (the Special Article section) poses special challenges. Each has its distinctive rhythm of production and each has its own protocols for evaluation.

 

Different rhythms

The commentary section was meant to offer extended analysis of contemporary affairs. In the past, such articles would slowly make their way to the pages of EPW. That pace was, in my view, no longer acceptable to readers.  We had to have articles on current affairs every week.

Since EPW did not have its own team of writers, it had to commission these articles from its old and new circle of journalists, academics, activists and public intellectuals, and persuade them to write quickly, offering a close understanding of contemporary issues. If the journal was lucky, the commissioned article would be published in 10 days, if it was done within a fortnight it would still be relevant.

The Special Article section had a different rhythm altogether. The academic papers published there were selected from the many submitted to EPW. This process could take upwards of three months, and sometimes, to the dismay of the authors, more than six months. Research papers which were on topical issues would receive priority but topicality in the Special Article section was defined more in terms of what was topical at that time in academics.

It was hardly the case that all the articles published in the commentary section had been solicited and all the papers in the academic half had been independently submitted.

In the commentary section, the aim was to have two if not three articles (in a complement of five to six) on current issues commissioned from contributors. These articles often offered a very critical perspective on the issue at hand and would be highlighted on the top of the cover page (something possible with Aurobind Patel’s elegant design introduced in 2007) to signal to readers that there was topical material inside. The rest of the commentary section would be short pieces (in EPW terms, short meant 2000-2500 words!) that would either analyse or explain an interesting issue, sometimes even in slightly technical terms.

In the Special Article or research section, the search by EPW would be more for new writers who would be asked to write on their areas of interest rather than for research papers on particular subjects (I remember though that in one instance we pursued a particular author for a paper on Indian labour laws over a period of close to a year and it was finally published some 15-18 months from the date of commissioning).

 

Different protocols

The protocols for evaluation of articles in the two halves of the journal were different. Commentary would be assessed internally and usually relatively quickly for the argument, internal consistency, facts and personalised attacks. The latter could surface especially when the authors were activists who at times tended to stretch the arguments and be selective in their facts when they wished to make a point.

The Special Articles for the larger part would be read internally and the assessment would take a longer time to complete. The review would be more wide-ranging and academic in nature (checks on references to prior literature, nature of data used, level of sophistication of analysis, cogency in argument, etc.) rather than what was carried out in the commentary section.

"The protocols for evaluation of articles in the two halves of the journal were different"

 

Gradually, an increasing proportion of the Special Articles that were finally published had gone through an external review.

This uniqueness of EPW – two journals in one – made it important for us to keep an eye on both sections all the time. In the initial years, I paid special attention to the commentary section bringing in new writers, more contemporary analysis, frequent special sections, and launching new columns. Later, once the topicality of the journal was established, EPW paid equal attention to both halves.

 

(ii) Journal of dissent or Academic journal?

It was important to pay attention to both sections of EPW because each had its own audience. Conversations with readers and the occasional survey we did revealed that many read only the first half of the journal (Columns, Commentary and Book Reviews) and there were just as many who looked only at the second, research half (Special Articles, Notes and Discussion).

The former were often readers who were looking for more than what was found in the newspapers; the latter were usually from the academic/university community – students, teachers and researchers. There were a few readers who looked at both sections but they seemed to be outnumbered by the rest.

"So was EPW a journal of dissent or was it a journal of research in the social sciences where academics – young and old – presented their research?"

 

The strength of the first half was that the Commentary usually had critical analyses on contemporary events that would not usually be found in the mainstream press. They found their way here because EPW had always given space to critical perspectives.

So was EPW a journal of dissent or was it a journal of research in the social sciences where academics – young and old – presented their research? We kept working to maintain the strength of the first, the “topical” half. But my tenure at EPW (2004-16) was also the time when on-line options for writers vastly increased and they were also much more flexible than print publications on the space they could offer. There was the prospect of immediate publication as well. For this reason and because of pressure from the authors of research papers, EPW seemed to be getting pushed into the academic corner.

 

(iii) Multidisciplinary vs islands of disciplines

When EPW began, one of the objectives was to make it a forum where social scientists from different disciplines would speak with each other across disciplinary boundaries. This it seemed to be doing quite well until the 1970s. Then, over time, as each of the social sciences became more and more specialised (with sub-divisions within each social science as well), the language and tools of analysis became more and more unique to each discipline.

The author of each research paper in the Special Article section ended up talking only to others in the same field. This was so even of the essays in what was supposed to be an EPW section addressing broader issues: the Perspectives section.

We tried to work with authors on this but research itself was moving in that specialised direction. It was not only the technical content of papers in economics that was at fault, the dense language of cultural studies also contributed to papers in each discipline appearing as islands of their own. It was not surprising that only the older social scientists made an effort in EPW to talk across disciplinary boundaries.

EPW did not have the human resources to do the kind of rewriting which, for instance, that excellent site from Australia, The Conversation, has been able to do so well to allow readers to access articles across a range of subjects and disciplines.

Yet, we never forgot the need to encourage multi-disciplinary writing and remained partial to an essay that spoke across boundaries.

 

(vi) Multiplication of disciplines

EPW began with a focus on economics and then drew in political science and sociology as well. From the 1980s and 1990s onwards, its coverage in the Special Article section began to widen even more. Women’s studies were pioneered in EPW in the 1980s, then came environment studies to be followed by cultural studies. Today, EPW is home – again in the Special Article section – to everything from literary studies to game theory.

Each area had its own readers so it was essential when choosing articles to publish each week to be aware of the need to give representation to each field, so that over a month there would be no skewing of publications towards one or the other discipline.

"Women’s studies were pioneered in EPW in the 1980s, then came environment studies to be followed by cultural studies"
 

 

It was also necessary to publish articles written by well-known scholars as well as those written by researchers seeking to make their mark. Indeed, a strength of EPW was that over the decades it had launched the publishing careers of many social scientists who later became well-known in their fields.

 

(vii) “Academicisation” of EPW

In the second half of my tenure at EPW, a new challenge was perhaps to cope with the pressures to turn the journal more and more into a pure academic publication. This was the direct outcome of changes in the academic world.

There was a greater pressure on academics at all levels to publish more and more. The University Grants Commission and university rules made everything from PhD submission to promotions dependent on the number of publications you had. This pressure on EPW overflowed from the Special Article section to the Perspectives and even Commentary sections. 

The number of professional journals have grown but the need to publish is now far too great for even these journals to handle. EPW, which has been increasingly recognised formally in universities as “a journal”, began to be flooded with papers which were not always of publishable quality, to put it mildly.

Since it came out weekly, there was more space available here for research papers than in monthly/quarterly journals. If academics in the form of pure research of whatever quality seeped through EPW, then one of its identities as a journal of ideas and a forum to express dissent would die. Again we were aware of this tendency and did our best to keep some kind of balance.

 

Peer review

There was at the same time pressure on EPW to formally become a “peer reviewed journal”. Often the younger academics from some universities were unwilling to publish in EPW because it was not seen as peer reviewed. I was never keen on making the journal completely peer reviewed for then the uniqueness of the journal as giving space to a wide spectrum of writers would go.

What we did do was gradually build up the extent to which the published research papers were reviewed externally. This was also necessary because, with the specialisation of research, it was increasingly impossible for all the papers to be reviewed internally. A database of some 200+ referees was built up by 2016 (not enough considering the range of subjects covered). That the papers were being refereed externally began to be noticed in print. Perhaps as a result, Scopus, one of the world’s leading indexers of research journals, included EPW in its coverage. Without EPW seeking this recognition of being peer reviewed, it was given this status which mattered in academic circles.

"More than the pressure to become a formal peer reviewed journal, it was the slow marginalisation in EPW of Indian scholars working in India that worried me deeply"

All this did not seem enough. An argument made by a group of economists was to see to it that all papers published in the Special Article section went through a formal external review process, while the rest of the journal retained its present identity. Towards the end of my tenure, Aniket Alam, then executive editor, and I discussed this and there seemed some merit in this proposal provided – and this was important – the space for non-academics was simultaneously expanded with larger Commentary and Perspectives sections.

Formalising the refereeing process would have also called for at least 20-25 senior academics to commit themselves to act as external editors and guide the EPW staff in the refereeing process. This seemed too major a change to introduce on the eve of my departure. I left it to my successor to think about and take it forward.

 

Foreign scholars

More than the pressure to become a formal peer reviewed journal, it was the slow marginalisation in EPW of Indian scholars working in India that worried me deeply. EPW always sought contributions from abroad, from Indians working outside the country as well as from foreign scholars for research both on India and South Asia and also on the rest of the world. However, EPW was set up as a forum both to debate contemporary issues and to encourage writers and scholars in the country to participate in these debates. 

Over time, scholars abroad seemed to be increasingly present in EPW, even outnumbering the domestic writers. This may well have been the outcome of the migration of talent abroad as also the absence of training in India about how to put together a paper.

"At the end of my tenure, EPW was receiving 80 submissions a week (4000 a year) of all kinds, of which it could realistically hope to publish no more 12-15"
 

 We did our best to give greater encouragement to “home” talent because if EPW had more writing from abroad than at home, a legitimate question would be: why publish EPW from India then? (This phenomenon of near dominance of scholars abroad in commenting on India is to be found elsewhere. A quick glance at the contributions to Ideas4India shows a similar pattern in that online journal.)

 

Strengths and weaknesses in economics

Another trend linked to the migration of talent abroad was the decline in the presence of articles on economic theory and macroeconomic policy in the EPW. The Indian economists abroad seemed to work mainly in highly specialised fields and they did not seem able or willing to present their research in a manner suitable for the EPW readership.

As a result, gradually there was more political science, sociology, gender studies, environment etc. in the EPW. Economics continued to be numerically the most important, but the other social sciences seemed to be offering better and better material. We remained on the look out for research in what is called “heterodox” (or outside the mainstream) economics.

Where EPW continued to remain strong in the area of economic policy was in its analysis of poverty, employment, social sector issues and welfare programmes like the Public Distribution System and MGNREGA, as also the health sector.

 

Other challenges

These were some of the major editorial challenges at EPW as I saw them at the time. There were of course many others. Some relating to finance (income, expenditure and corpus mobilisation); some relating to staffing; and some relating to how to smoothen the flow of decision-making so that contributors did not feel they were kept waiting.

The number of submissions to the journal was always far greater than could be published even after weeding out for sub-standard quality. At the end of my tenure, EPW was receiving 80 submissions a week (4000 a year) of all kinds, of which it could realistically hope to publish no more 12-15. This was an acceptance rate of less than 20%, something that always made contributors unhappy.

These 80 submissions could not be read within a week before the next lot arrived, though many authors wanted an immediate decision. We drew up norms for time periods for processing, acceptance/rejection and publication. The success we had here depended on how serious we were in adhering to these norms.

 

Working across desks

There were no specialisations among the editorial staff. All of us therefore did everything from reading articles to editing them and when the occasion demanded,  writing an editorial. EPW therefore continued to depend immensely on members of the larger community of readers, writers and well-wishers to help in numerous ways: to continue to write for a token honorarium, to recommend writers, and to referee papers.

"We received a number of letters threatening legal action but when we stood our ground, there was no follow up"

 While none of these numerous challenges were ever completely overcome, we still managed to handle them with a degree of success in large part because of the work culture in EPW. A tradition I inherited was one of openness which I valued deeply and sought to maintain.

 

Open work culture

EPW was not a collective. There were hierarchies but the hierarchies were kept to a minimum. The hierarchies were also made flexible. The salary structure was maintained in a manner that it minimised the differentials across grades. At times it was not those at the upper end who benefited the most from a revision in salaries. [i] 

We also made it a point to maintain a collegial work culture within the office and across all sections, editorial, production and administrative.  The editor remained the functional head of the organisation. I did at times take decisions on my own and also turned down some of the suggestions of my colleagues. However, the larger emphasis was on an open way of functioning with a sharing of responsibilities in both editorial and non-editorial matters.

I always believed that how EPW was produced was as important as what it said. I believed that the strength of its editorial views were the stronger because the journal was produced in as democratic a manner as was possible. This had been the “tradition” and we did our best to keep it that way.

 

Legal notices

We had our share of controversies and angry letters from readers, authors and “affected” parties. We were largely in the right but where we were wrong, an apology and a correction was promptly published and prominently displayed.

We received a number of letters threatening legal action but when we stood our ground, there was no follow up. I can recall only one instance of actually receiving a legal notice about an article. This was in 2015 and was addressed to EPW and not the Sameeksha Trust. The letter threatened action for defamation and claimed damages of Rs 50 lakhs (!). We wrote back on the advice of a lawyer reaffirming our arguments and rejecting the allegations. We never heard again from the lawyers.

"Today’s EPW also needs an editor with a sense of the digital world to be able to navigate the digital era"

 Looking back, each of my three predecessors was unique in his own way and made his own unique contribution to the journal. I think I was also very different from them though I recognised what they had created and tried to build on what they had done in rapidly changing circumstances.

It was a challenging job that demanded constant attention, continuous work and no let up in expectations. It was at the same time very interesting because you do not get many opportunities to run an independent publication where you do not have to worry about dictates from others (at least at that time) and where you can build a work culture that does not value hierarchy.

 

What kind of editor?

So what kind of editor does EPW need?  It is now getting to be 18 months since I stepped down in March 2016. During this period, the threats to the press, the fear of the media and the heckling of dissenting views has grown. It has been a time when the need for an independent and critical voice like EPW has been all the more important.

EPW then needs first and foremost an editor who recognises what EPW has been and needs to be in the present times. And he or she should be able to do the job without having to look over their shoulder at what the publishers (Sameeksha Trust) may say.

In spite of all the changes, EPW continues to be a hybrid, neither a magazine of current affairs nor an academic journal. Since it is a bit of both, an editor has to have the skills of a journalist as also an interest in, and awareness of, social science research, especially but not only in economics. 

An editor with a background in academics needs to learn the skills of editing and production as well. He or she will also have to dirty their hands on the desk. The editor can lean on the senior colleagues for help but in a small team specialisation is not possible. An editor who comes from the media may not be able to understand all the intricacies of social science research but will still have to have some feel for it at least.

Editors with either set of skills would need to develop professional and personal links with a large community of academics who are vital for the growth of EPW. No editor of EPW has worked on his own and no editor can work on his own in this journal. It has been built on and thrives with the support of a larger community.

Today’s EPW also needs an editor with a sense of the digital world to be able to navigate the digital era. During my time, we digitised the entire archives, entered into a licensing agreement with the vast J-stor repository and began a Web Exclusives section. The idea of the Web Exclusives section was to give readers a quick analysis of major events, which could be later developed into a more detailed article in print.

All this is not enough. Today’s readers and writers have far more outlets to choose from to read and write for than even five years ago. EPW has a reputation, reach and goodwill to call on, but it cannot assume that this will see it through forever. Already outlets like Scroll.in and The Wire.in are publishing the commentary-kind of pieces that used to be EPW’s strength.

Digital forums like Macroscan and IdeasforIndia are putting out the more specialised material. Internationally, sites like The Conversation have been successful in presenting research to the reader who is not an academic.

 In the light of the recent controversy surrounding the EPW, one deafening silence in this account is the role of the Sameeksha Trust and its relations with the editor of EPW.

 

Sameeksha Trust

My own relations with the Sameeksha Trust turned sour only towards the end of my tenure, and after I had informed the trustees that I would be stepping down. However, since then – over the past two years – looking at it from the outside there seems to be a continued deterioration in the functioning of the Sameeksha Trust.

There is little that the trustees have done in this period to indicate that they can guide the EPW wisely in the years ahead. The composition of the Trust, how it is governed, what it does and what it does not do, and its relations with the editor call for reflection and a radical rethink if the reputation of the journal is to be maintained.

EW/EPW has lived through all the turbulent periods that have marked the Republic’s 67-year-old history. It would be hard to think of a more turbulent time than now when the critical and independent voice of EPW needs to be heard. As a long-time reader first and a former editor second, I hope it can be protected and strengthened.

 

(Tailpiece: When the editor of The Hoot suggested this piece a few weeks ago, I was not sure if I should write it at a time when the journal was in the middle of a controversy that was weakening the institution. I now see the value of the suggestion. So little is known of how EPW functions and what the role of the editor should be, that better information about the journal may facilitate a more informed discussion.)

 


[i]In my view, more than the editors it was the proof readers who helped maintain standards both in language and usage. They had remained under-paid for years. It was my colleague, Bernard D’Mello, Deputy Editor, who in 2014 suggested that it was the proof readers who needed a larger raise, a suggestion we implemented.

 

C. Rammanohar Reddy edited the Economic and Political Weekly  between  2004 and 2016.  He is currently a writer and commentator based in Hyderabad and Readers' Editor at Scroll.in.  He was Assistant Editor, Deccan Herald (1988-93) and Associate Editor, The Hindu (1993-2004).

 

 

 

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