Whither Jamaica Journal?

Jamaica Journal
Jamaica Journal (photo: courtesy of Veerle Poupeye)

Jamaica Journal, the peer-reviewed academic journal of the Institute of Jamaica, holds a special place in my professional trajectory. It was there that I published my first major research essay, in 1988, on the work of Everald Brown, a text I produced at the invitation of the then editor, Olive Senior. Since then, I have contributed six more research essays and reviews, the most recent one in 2020 (a review of Ebony G. Patterson’s …while the dew is still on the roses… exhibition at the Perez Art Museum in Jamaica) and several of my contributions yielded the cover image, my Everald Brown and Ebony G. Patterson essays included.

Jamaica Journal has thus played an important role in my introduction to the world of academic publishing and editing, for which I will always be grateful. I had the opportunity to work with three of its distinguished editors, which in addition to Olive Senior, have included the late Leeta Hearne in the 1990s and, most recently, Kim Robinson who has been the editor-in-chief since 2004. Over the years, the journal has published a valuable, unique, and diverse trove of information on Jamaican history, culture, and natural history, the visual arts included, and has maintained consistently high editorial standards for most of its history. As a journal that publishes academically sound content in a way that also speaks to general audiences, it has played a crucial role in supporting the Institute of Jamaica’s mandate as an institution of public scholarship, which is what it fundamentally is (or at least should be).

My personal library holds an almost complete collection of Jamaica Journal, from its first issue in 1967 to the most recent one, volume 38, Nos. 1-2, in June 2021. And for those few issues I do not have at home, I can peruse the Jamaica Journal archive of the Digital Library of the Caribbean, which has all issues of the journal available online, on an open-source basis (which can be accessed here: Jamaica journal – Digital Library of the Caribbean (dloc.com)). These are resources I use frequently in support of my own academic work, and often recommend to others.

Despite its longevity, the survival of Jamaica Journal has been under threat at several points in its history. There were significant disruptions in the publication schedule in 1980, no doubt caused by the socio-political disruption around the 1980 general elections, and there was also a lengthy break in publication from 2002 to 2004. It is telling that only 38 volumes have been published in nearly 57 years of publication, as the journal was originally published as a quarterly, with each year coinciding with a volume. In recent years, publication has become very irregular, with volumes stretching over multiple years and the number of issues being reduced to three per volume, with one of them usually a double issue, so effectively only two issues per volume. And now it appears that Jamaica Journal is again on a lengthy break, as there has been no new publication since June 2021. I understand that a new issue has been in the pipeline for quite some time now, with troubling politics and bureaucratic obstructionism getting in the way of its publication, neither of which are amenable to the sustainability or credibility of the journal.

It is indeed high time that interested stakeholders start asking some questions about the handling and future of Jamaica Journal, and indeed about the Institute of Jamaica as a whole, as it appears to be drifting away from its core mandate. I have already ventilated my concerns about political interference at the National Gallery of Jamaica, but it appears that political ownership issues are a much broader problem with Jamaica’s cultural institutions, which also affect the publication of Jamaica Journal. There have been consistent rumours, in recent years, of ministerial interference and internal wranglings with directing and approving editorial content which, if true, is unprecedented and detrimental for an academic journal.

The “powers-that-be” should perhaps be reminded that Jamaica Journal is not a corporate or ministerial newsletter and that it is the editor-in-chief, supported by the peer reviewers and editorial board, who should manage and moderate its editorial content, of course within a clearly established mandate and with the appropriate accountability safeguards. If what I have been hearing is true, urgent steps need to be taken to restore Jamaica Journal to a healthy degree of editorial and academic autonomy, with room for an appropriate diversity of critical opinions and scholarly perspectives. The contents of a publication such as Jamaica Journal should not be politically sanctioned. As is also the case at other cultural institutions in Jamaica, the specialist professionals should be empowered to do their jobs without such interference, and with adequate supporting resources provided.

I sat on the editorial board for Jamaica Journal from 2013 to early 2018, which was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. The dominant discussion at that time was less about finding suitable editorial content, which was not generally a problem, but about keeping the journal viable, financially, and exploring strategies for its wider circulation. The experience also led me to wonder whether the publication of an academic journal is compatible with the sort of inefficient and time-consuming government bureaucracies that obtain in Jamaica. The production of each issue, for instance, goes through the government procurement process separately, which involves a lengthy and complicated process, with different printers used for different issues, which is hardly ideal for consistency in the production quality. Any eleventh hour change to the page-count and resulting change in the printing cost, furthermore, requires going back to the procurement for review and approval, which can add months to the already quite lengthy publication timelines.

While I was a part of it, the academics on the Editorial Board and the financial administrators of the Institute of Jamaica who attended the meetings seemed to dwell in different universes, with only limited shared understanding about what is important about Jamaica Journal. I could not help but get the impression that some of the Institute bureaucrats felt that the journal was not an essential part of the Institute’s operations. This, and other such experiences with the Institute, often left me to wonder about what they believed the institution was there to do, other than staying out of trouble in terms of meeting the increasingly arcane standards and regulations of public administration and financial management.

Part of the problem is that academic journals are only rarely self-sustaining, and Jamaica Journal has never had the kind of circulation to make that even remotely possible. It is difficult to retain the support of individual and library subscribers if the journal is not published on a regular basis. The inclusion of advertisements, which is unusual for an academic journal and uses up valuable editorial space, may help to buffer costs, but other, more substantial support is still obviously needed, and one wonders if there is even any budgetary support from the public purse, as I understand that this has been lacking recently. Given the undeniable educational value of Jamaica Journal, I can think of worse ways to spend public money (as any review of public spending in Jamaica will show).

Many academic journals rely on grants and institutional support, as well as publication and circulation assistance from an established academic publishing house. Small Axe, a Caribbean journal that originated in Jamaica but is now published in the USA, is for instance published through the Duke University Press, with funding support from the likes of the Ford, Reed and Andy Warhol foundations and the National Endowment for the Humanities. One wonders why there cannot be a similar support structure for Jamaica Journal, for instance with a long-term grant from the CHASE Fund or an international grantmaker focused on the Caribbean, and what the Institute of Jamaica is doing to resolve the situation. When I had my first publications with Jamaica Journal, the Institute of Jamaica had its own publication house, Institute of Jamaica Publications, but this company closed its doors in the early 1990s. This closure was a great loss to public scholarship in Jamaica, in my estimation, and perhaps the option should be revisited, possibly in partnership with other academic publishers in Jamaica. If the importance of Jamaica Journal is duly recognized, a solution can surely be found to make the journal more sustainable and to ensure that its editorial and academic standards are maintained.

Dr Veerle Poupeye is an art historian specialized in art from the Caribbean. She works as an independent curator, writer, researcher, and cultural consultant. The second, revised and expanded edition of her best-known book “Caribbean Art” was recently published in the World of Art series of Thames and Hudson. Her personal blog can be found at veerlepoupeye.com.

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