Peer Review and Academic Kindness

Rebecca Schuman has a new piece up at Slate on peer review. She works through the usual, and often VERY TRUE, complaints about cruel, self-centered, or just very late reviews. Her comments track with the experiences of many of my friends.

One, writing about a third-tier European city, had her book booted from her publisher of choice because noted that it was a third-tier European city, and one of the reviewers didn’t like hearing the town referred to in such a way. The reviewer was so powerful, the editor said sadly, that there was nothing he could do.

Another, writing for a major European press, received a peer review of her tenure book that was a paragraph long and said, basically, this sucks.

On Academic Fail Blog (Fumblr), Maggie Williams and Nancy Thompson has put up a transcript of their delightful 2013 Kalamazoo performance of “Speculations and Rejections.” Williams’ comments reflect an amalgamation of actual statements included in peer reviews they had crowdsourced, such as:

I find the references to/juxtapositions with modern thought here and there annoying, but that is perhaps more a reflection of my own stylistic predilections. More seriously, the introduction of the figure of Moses is poorly done, and besides, “Medieval Codex 312” (a manuscript I know something about!) has the earliest horned Moses, not “Medieval Codex 313”, which undercuts some of the force of the essay’s rhetoric (and reliability).

The author’s most original contributions are the speculations about the multiple meanings of [the objects]… These speculations, however, are not based on any contemporary literary sources and derive entirely from the author’s imagination.

Professor Thompson needs to read the most important dissertation in this area, a recent work by…. Nancy M. Thompson.

That last one is my favorite (anonymity often goes both ways for articles, so the reviewer wouldn’t have known).

I’ve thought a lot about peer review lately, while getting some wonderful feedback on my own writing and delivering what I hope was constructive feedback to another author. I reviewed an article from receipt to delivery in 5 days – of course, it was summer.

One problem, I think, and one that I don’t see explored very often, is that reviewers (in my field anyway) tend to be quite senior people, the more senior the better. That means that by definition they came through grad school and published their early work in a very different publishing environment than the one we live in now. Many senior faculty know this and have adapted their approach to reviewing, but not all.

Schuman offers three solutions (the last hers uniquely).

1. Sign your reviews. I endorse this. Yes, people will still be cruel, but it will change the calculus if we cannot hide behind anonymity. I actually think that the fact that we can be critical with our name attached shows that we don’t need anonymity to review.

2. Crowdsource reviews – I don’t really know what I think about this, but the idea of putting an academic essay draft on my blog or other social media site and letting you all have it at is terrifying but appealing. I might try it someday.

3. Review the reviewers. Before you are allowed to submit an article, you have to review an article, and it has to be both timely and constructive.

I love this idea, but I am skeptical about its pragmatism. In my field, at least, as noted above, reviewers tend to be relatively senior. I was never asked to review an article until I had made it through tenure and had a book on the way. That’s appropriate. But I submitted many articles as a junior faculty member on the long climb upwards. Moreover, it definitely wouldn’t work for monographs, as you generally need someone with a book (or many) to review your first book. In other fields, do junior people do peer reviews?

The best solution, of course, is to be kind and constructive. For people in the humanities, as Schuman puts it, to be humane.

It does happen. A friend of mine created the academic kindness tumblr as a way to track good behavior, so that the hubbub of horrible examples doesn’t lead us into total despair.

It could happen more. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the book review, a signed, public, piece, in which there’s a kind of expectation that we will write at least one negative paragraph detailing the work’s faults, however minor. Do we have to write that paragraph? If it’s not important, just skip it. I promise I will not think less of you if your review doesn’t note minute errors (conflict of interest, I am finishing copyedits on my first book, I am terrified of minute errors)!

So what happened with those two friends I cited at the start of this post?

My friend with the book on the third-tier European city didn’t get the first-pick press, but the editor immediately started calling other editors, telling them that he had a great book here he couldn’t publish, and found it a good home. That friend got tenure.

My friend with the one-paragraph review – well, the editor sent it to her, but then said that they would find another reviewer.  The book will come out. That friend got tenure as well.

The kindness and professionalism of these editors is not a system. We’re still too reliant on petty point-scoring and I like Schuman’s thoughts on how to get around that. Until we’ve got such a system, though, just try to be good, be professional, and be punctual. It’s the best we’ve got.

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