Interview: Tenth Anniversary of Anti-Trafficking Review
GAATW launched Anti-Trafficking Review - the first open access, peer reviewed journal focusing on human trafficking - in 2011. On the occasion of this tenth anniversary, the journal Editor, Borislav Gerasimov, spoke to three of the women who conceptualised and launched the journal and have continued to support it in various capacities: Bandana Pattanaik, International Coordinator of GAATW, Caroline Robinson, who was working at the time as International Advocacy Officer at GAATW, and Rebecca Napier-Moore who was working at the time as Research Officer. Caroline and Rebecca were part of the editorial team for the first issue, and Rebecca continued as journal Editor through 2016.
Borislav Gerasimov: How and why did you decide to found a specialised journal on human trafficking?
Caroline Robinson: I remember coming back from meetings with policymakers at the UN where they were asking about different concepts, ideas, and positions and saying, “We need evidence. If only we had evidence, if we had strong arguments…” At that time GAATW was publishing the Alliance News and another newsletter where members wrote about their work. We used to send these to members by post. I remember thinking that there was so much information in these publications that could have an impact on policy discourse and on the field. But we were sending them to members, and not really going further than that. And so the discussion about the journal grew around what we could do with all of this rich information we were publishing to get it further than our membership. But we also wanted to make sure that it was still very much of the membership and of the grassroots capturing the expertise in the Alliance News and across GAATW’s membership.
Rebecca Napier-Moore: Yes, the ATR was a revamp of the publications we were already putting out. We wanted them to have more impact – in terms of the weight that could be given to the articles if they were academic and had been reviewed and published. Further, as Caroline said, as an academic publication, it could get into the hands of policy makers with a stronger appeal and evidence base. Also, we could appeal to authors more and get even richer material if we packaged it as an academic journal, something academics were familiar with. In addition, we still wanted to be open to, facilitating of, and genuinely inclusive of GAATW members’ voices and stories for articles.
Bandana Pattanaik: I have similar recollection. It was clear that we could only go so far with a newsletter format. And, like Caroline and Rebecca said, the quality of material there had reached a level, which was quite critical, quite rich. But the audience that we were reaching out to was limited to only the CSO sector and mainly our members. Within the anti-trafficking world, there was a critical discourse emerging – not just among us. There were many people who were critically engaging with trafficking so we thought that this would be an opportunity to reach out to and engage with this critical mass that was being formed. And, like both of them said, we were concerned that if we published peer reviewed, proper academic material, then it would disconnect us from the membership and from grassroots organisations. So there was a lot of excitement, but this concern was there too.
BG: How did you try to overcome this potential disconnect between the academic and the grassroots? The journal tries to be a bridge between academics and practitioners, so how did you go about achieving this?
RNM: At first we were trying to work with GAATW members on full-fledged articles; we hadn't yet come up with the idea of a separate section for shorter pieces. We worked with several members to shape their drafts and writings of what they were seeing in the field, and of what was happening within their contexts. There was rich insight in this that does not come out in academic-only writing. We worked with the authors to shape articles into an academic format. Both myself as the Editor from GAATW and also the guest editors were very much on board with this. We worked to champion the practitioner writing and create value on it. For some academic guest editors and reviewers, seeing the merit in practitioner writing was a new ask. Similarly NGOs and practitioners were not always familiar with the academic process, what the peer review process is, and with a new level of academic standard that we had introduced into GAATW publishing. It was not like our old Alliance News where members submitted something, we brushed it up and then published it. Passing the academic process is hard, and we needed to ensure the absolute integrity of that process as well, so that we only published high quality work.
We had rich material from members in the first years, but some wasn’t in a fully academic article form. Together with Anne Gallagher, who was the guest editor of the first issue, we started thinking about how we could get this material out, even though it was not full-fledged articles. She had the idea to make short pieces into debates and ensure they were still engaging. That also dovetailed with her strong feeling - and ours as well - that the journal should be seen as a place of debate, not just an ideologically one-sided space that would turn people off. Her vision was for the journal to foster conversation for discussion of the hard issues in this field. So with these two aims in mind, we started a debate section. In some issues rather than debates, we had a short articles section. This allowed the ATR to become inclusive of practitioners of all varieties – from NGOs and law enforcement officials to UN special rapporteurs and national policy makers. The accessible debates and short articles also served as a vehicle to get practitioners to read the journal and share it around to other practitioners. Those sections did a lot to make sure the journal wasn't only academic. It wasn’t just going to sit on a shelf, but it would engage and create conversation among practitioners as well.
BG: How was the idea of the journal met by people in the field that you spoke with, whether the GAATW board, or member organisations, or academics you invited to the Editorial Board? What were their reactions?
BP: We didn’t have a process to check in with members about whether we should or should not launch the journal. But we did talk to the GAATW board, and they had mixed opinions. Some were very excited, and some were a bit less excited – the questions in their heads were: Should an NGO be doing this? Isn't it more appropriate for an academic institution or a university? But on the whole, they were quite positive. Over the years the GAATW Secretariat had moved on to what I call long-text writing, away from the handbook style of publications to things like reports and working papers and articles, so it wasn’t wholly new or inappropriate. As for the academics, the ones who were invited seemed very excited.
CR: I remember when talking to policymakers at the national and international level, they often repeated how fantastic it would be to have much more evidence to use to inform policy and policy decisions. In fact, we were finding that this was often an excuse not to take bold policy steps. Policy makers would say that they lacked the evidence to commit to policy decisions. When we first mentioned the ATR in these spaces, and I said we planned to have good solid peer reviewed evidence from this journal that could be used to inform policy, the initial response in policy spaces was very positive. We were obviously aware that once we had evidence, it would not necessarily be read or adopted by policy makers!
But to go back to the previous question. I was recently looking at the Abigail Stepnitz article in the first issue: A Lie More Disastrous than the Truth: Asylum and the identification of trafficked women in the UK reflecting on just how much impact that piece has had on the debate in the UK, which is fantastic. It's very practitioner-focused – Abigail was at the Poppy Project in the UK at the time, and the article was all about the organisation’s experience in the field. I know a lot of people have built on this experience and have referenced it. I think it was great having really seminal pieces like that in the first issue because that laid a foundation for people's understanding of what the journal could provide and how it could inform practice.
RNM: As for the academics, people we spoke to were excited about having a journal that was dedicated to trafficking, because there weren't any such journals at the time. Academics were publishing about anti-trafficking in migration journals, criminal justice, and sociology journals. There wasn't one place where you could find articles about this subject. Similarly, they were excited about the topics we put together in the Calls for Papers with the guest editors. The special issue topics - like accountability in the sector or anti-trafficking funding - were new in the early 2010’s and people hadn't written ad nauseum about them before. Authors could use the space to push the envelope in anti-trafficking writing. Several professors told us: I'm using this issue for teaching this year, or I’ve assigned two articles from the ATR to my students. Of course, there was some hesitancy from academics too, because we weren't indexed in Scopus and what not, and thus the ATR didn't tick the right boxes for their careers. On the other hand, we did have interest from a lot of academics who were maybe a little less careerist because we could give them the opportunity to reach practitioners and policy makers.
BP: The other community, which didn't really buy into this idea, was the donor community. We founded the journal at a difficult time for GAATW funding-wise because all our core support had disappeared. The journal wasn’t that expensive – the guest editors, authors and reviewers were doing it for free, as part of their careers. But still, we needed some funding for layout and printing, for the website, for promotion… Some friends from the donor community wrote a proposal for us, but it didn't have much purchase. I remember Rebecca and I going to several embassies in Bangkok and telling them how wonderful the ATR is, but they weren’t interested.
RNM: The feedback we got from some donors was that they could not fund the ATR partly because of where we are located geographically. Donors here in Southeast Asia had pots of money that they felt like they needed to put into more tangible things, like humanitarian work or community development.
BG: The lack of funding may have been partly resolved by charging authors a fee to publish, or charging readers a fee to access the articles, but you chose to make the journal open access. Why?
RNM: It was Sverre Molland’s idea. He was the guest editor of the second issue. As an NGO we didn't have a model of selling our publications in any case, so we didn't have a traditional journal’s paywall cost model in mind. Sverre suggested open access as the ethical thing to do, and there was already a strong movement around open access within academia. It worked for us because we needed things to be freely available for our members, but at the same time we were trying to figure out how to stay afloat because, like Bandana said, donors weren't interested. Then, in that year, the annual global conference of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association was held in Bangkok. I got myself a ticket to the conference, and learned more about how open access works, what structures you need to have in place to make it work, and about the different categories of open access. We had quite a lot to figure out to make sure that we could still protect the authors’ work enough that they felt comfortable publishing with us. And then we had to explain to authors what open access was all about, as it was a fairly new or niche movement at the time. Most academics as well as practitioners assumed we would be operating under the traditional copyright model.
BP: Yes, and open access also very much aligns with our values and principles. As feminists, especially from the Global South, we believe that knowledge should be democratised – it shouldn’t be contained in academic institutions or accessible only to those who can pay for it.
CR: Yes, exactly, we wanted the content to be available to our members and to other civil society organisations, otherwise we would be diverging from our values of democratising knowledge. Also for the benefit of policy-makers open-access is great as not all those working in the field of policy influence and policy making have access to subscriber-only academic materials.
BG: How in your view has the journal evolved over the last ten years, what contributions would you say it has made to the field?
CR: I like that there's always been that really great discussions in the Editorial Board, who have always been very honest about their opinions. It’s such a strong Editorial Board that has provided really amazing input. In terms of the contributions to the field, as we discussed in the beginning, the fact that it serves as a bridge between academics and practitioners and gives a voice to practitioners is significant. But also, I find it fascinating to read, for example, donor reports that reference Anti-Trafficking Review articles. It always fills me with pride when donors are thinking about where their money should be going on the basis of articles published in the journal. I think that's really important. It’s also significant that I no longer have to explain what the journal is, many people working in anti-trafficking and related fields know it and know of articles they have read therein, and this shows the kind of impact and the level of infiltration into the field.
RNM: Similarly, when I see people cite ATR, I think we’ve had the impact that we wanted because it's being used. I’ve also seen the journal’s impact as actively improving debate. The peer review process has pushed the (now) hundreds of people that have published with us to refine their thinking. Peer review leaves very little room for lazy arguments, and everyone involved - authors, editors, and reviewers - have done an immense amount of work to take thinking about anti-trafficking and trafficking to another level, and also to take hard looks at evidence and facts in the sector. Sloppy ideologically-driven thinking and writing is put through the ringer with authors often re-writing and responding to reviewers several times, and only vetted and refined work is published. To me this process has added invaluable rigour to the field of anti-trafficking.
You also asked about what's gotten better about the journal. Well, especially since you came on board as the Editor in 2016, the journal is being promoted and publicised much more widely. You're doing amazing work with that. It’s great that people still propose special issues and volunteer to guest edit – it shows that people are still finding it so valuable that they want to put in the time both to guest edit and to write. New themes are emerging, and we have a queue of topic ideas in the wings. There was a time when I was worried that people weren't going to be reading journals anymore because work in the 2020’s has become too fast-paced and people aren't doing as much deep reading as when we started. Soundbites and two-minute attention spans are the norm. But the world’s shrinking ability to focus on anything for long seemingly hasn't affected the journal, at least not that I can see.
BP: In terms of making a critical contribution to the anti-trafficking discourse, the journal has played a very important role. In a way, it’s a validation of our efforts that people are reading it and engaging with it and questioning the dominant discourse. And, of course, it has limitations – it’s in English language, it's an academic publication. So obviously, it defines a particular kind of audience. But within that audience, I can see that it is making impact and creating engagement. And I agree with Rebecca, that popularising the content, turning the long articles into shorter pieces, that’s really valuable.
BG: Looking forward, do you have any advice, or recommendations for how the journal should develop in the future?
CR: I really like the practitioner pieces, the on-the-ground pieces guided by experience of practical work in this field – these have been hugely helpful to the anti-trafficking sector as a whole. I often think that it would be great to find a way to encourage more of these, by making space for these practice-oriented pieces and encouraging more of these contributions. Maybe this could be achieved in part by inviting more practitioners and representatives of grassroots organisations to the Editorial Board.
BP: Ten years ago, we didn’t think we would go on for so long. The system that Rebecca had put in place when she was the Editor, and now you’re following it, is great. It’s amazing how you’re working on several issues simultaneously, and I think this should continue and there are really interesting ideas coming up. I hope that we would be able to create some sort of a complimentary publication that can more directly include the voices of grassroots organisations, and of women and workers who are self-organising. I was recently talking to self-organised groups of women workers in different countries of destination and countries of origin and they want to tell their stories – why they organised, how they organised. These are amazing stories and it would be great if we can somehow play a small part in telling them.