The point is to change it: On surviving peer-review and “making a difference”

When a paper is accepted for publication in Antipode, we offer its author(s) the option to contribute a second abstract which outlines their research’s implications for praxis. This is an opportunity to highlight what a paper could mean for policy or practice, and the relation of the issues discussed in it to contemporary political concerns. For a number reasons good and bad, not all authors do this, but those that do often offer thoughtful, hopeful reflections. Critical geographers, of course, have long thought about and debated the question of “relevance”, focusing on intentions, opportunities for “making a difference”, and frustrations and failures. Stories of success are arguably too rare, so it is our pleasure to be able to share one here, after speaking with (and cajoling!) one of our good friends in the Antipodes, Swinburne University’s Emma Lee…

As an Australian Indigenous researcher, in 2013 I came to a PhD later in life after a career in archaeology and land management. After six months of study I had a collegial discussion with my supervisor about the colonising harms and exclusion from the definition and practice of global protected areas as found within the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories”. Channelling my black outrage into a draft paper, I came face-to-face with all the newness that is professional journal publishing and university output requirements for journal excellence.

The Antipode special issue of June 2010 dedicated to “Capitalism and Conservation” had, and continues to have, a deep influence on my own thoughts and writing. I wanted to play in the big boys’ intellectual sandpit after inhaling those papers and Antipode became my yardstick of whether I had the capacity to contribute to scholarship. The draft paper I then submitted to Antipode was an attempt to apply the learning and emulate the excellence from that collection.

To be accepted for peer-review felt like the cheekiest start to my research career, whether published or not. The editorial process is a precious gift to me, and in a case of being careful for what you wish for, the length, depth and breadth of the peer-review comments from that draft felt like all the Christmases at once and being the centre of my very own cautionary tale. As I tell new(er) researchers, when you are faced with eight pages of theoretical, structural, philosophical, and some minor peer-review commentary, just to break the monotony, and wade through those emotionally-distressing waters to be published in a top-ranking international journal as a first time author, then anything is achievable.

Antipode dedicated the most peerless editorial support to mentoring and supporting me to write to my level of confidence and knowledge. They pushed me to make intellectual breakthroughs and produce insights and observations that are original and independent: Antipode gave me an accelerated education in the arts of clear communication and knowledge-sharing. Perhaps even more so, Antipode and its editorial team gave me the confidence that my Indigeneity will never, ever be a global barrier to contribute different and important published research perspectives. Furthermore, later papers were written from the first person Indigenous voice upon reflection of the learning moment and dissatisfaction of finding how I articulate whom I am and for what purpose, such as decolonising work or centring Indigenous knowledges.

However, tied to a personal and professional confidence-growing moment, the timing of the publication could not have been better. After almost two years of polish, the online version in August 2015 and the print version in volume 48, issue 2, in March 2016, the joys of seeing my first academic publication were only matched by the impacts and outcomes of what the paper foreclosed on. The paper, “Protected Areas, Country and Value: The Nature–Culture Tyranny of the IUCN’s Protected Area Guidelines for Indigenous Australians”, positioned my thesis on establishing the models and processes for the first joint management plan between Aboriginal Tasmanians and the Tasmanian Government over a protected area, namely the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA country).

The literature review to previous TWWHA country management, global conservation histories and the disappointments and exclusions of my peoples meant that, come 2014 when the old plan of management expired, we had a peer-reviewed and international paper that, for once, articulated and centred our narratives. The paper was a springboard into conceiving a political position for our peoples to promote joint management as a solution to dispossession and exclusion in the management of protected areas. By the end of 2016, a final, statutorily-approved plan of management that was supported by the diverse Aboriginal Tasmanian communities, the Tasmanian and Australian Governments, and lauded by the World Heritage Committee’s Reactive Monitoring Mission as exceeding global standards for consultation. (I make note how proud I was that my paper was cited by the reactive monitoring team in their report.) As a key architect of this historic joint management plan for almost one-fifth of the land mass of Tasmania, the paper lent me a legitimacy to my studies and policy outputs that crafted a positive and welcome arrangement for the inaugural joint management plan.

So, Antipode journal and Foundation have a very special place in my heart. They have become the ideal by which I continue to produce research outputs and impacts and nothing will take away the sheer, utter delight and happiness of having Antipode as my first waltz partner.

Emma Lee is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Fellow at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, and an Adjunct Lecturer in the Centre for Marine Socioecology at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. A trawlwulwuy woman from tebrakunna country, north-east Tasmania, her research over the last 25 years has focused on Indigenous affairs, land and sea management, natural and cultural resources, regional development, and the policy and governance of Australian regulatory environments. In 2018 Emma received the University of Tasmania’s Foundation Graduate Award (for “graduates who have made or are making a significant difference in both local and/or wider international communities”) and a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship to support work at the University of Tokyo. You can read more about Emma and her brilliant work here.