‘I wish more editors would delete unhelpfully negative comments’
The academic peer review process is both a blessing and a curse. As a journal editor, I rely on colleagues’ willingness to review submissions, recognise promising articles and recommend improvements when required. Peer reviewing can be a generous act of sharing our wisdom and experience – typically without remuneration – with fellow scholars whom we may not even know. It involves more than simply stating whether or not a piece of work is good enough for publication; it also allows us to validate authors’ scholarly efforts and offer them constructive feedback, thus sustaining and enriching our own research field. If done well, it can foster collegiality, encouraging fellow academics and students to produce and publish their best work.
What makes a good peer review? Some of the best I have received (as both an author and journal editor) have been honest yet kind in their feedback, laying out the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses in generous detail. They have also been constructive in their criticism, offering suggestions for how to make the argument stronger: what additional sources could be useful and which elements of the discussion should be highlighted. More than anything, good peer reviews encourage the author to keep working on their article, to make it as good as it can be, and to see it as a piece of work with real academic value and merit.
Yet being a peer reviewer rarely reaps any professional rewards, as institutions seldom recognise it as a measure of scholarly esteem, or as making a worthy contribution to the research environment. This is so ironic given the massive pressure put on academics to ensure that their own publications are properly peer reviewed.
Moreover, peer review is a system that is open to abuse. The thrill of anonymity allows some reviewers to vent their frustrations and pet peeves on fellow academics’ work. I have received my own share of reviews that left a dent in my confidence as a writer and researcher. Most frustrating were those that focused less on the strengths of my argument or the quality of my writing than on whether or not the reviewer shared my ideological stance. One particularly crushing reviewer from a few years ago recommended my article be rejected because they disagreed with my support for LGBT equality. Thankfully, the journal editor ignored their recommendation and offered to publish my article.
I have also spoken with more than one disenchanted graduate student whose experiences of receiving negative reviews left them questioning their abilities as researchers, and even their right to a place in the academy. A few months ago, a doctoral student told me about the reviews she had received from a highly esteemed journal in her field. One of the reviewers had suggested that her argument was “preposterous” and lacking in any academic merit. “Why are academics so unkind to each other?” she asked me. I had no answer. But I have gotten into the habit of carefully checking reviews sent to me as a journal editor before I pass them on to the author, deleting unhelpfully negative comments or rephrasing them into more constructive feedback. I wish more journal editors would do the same.
Peer reviewing in the humanities is typically double-blind, but a colleague recently suggested to me that while authors should remain anonymous, they should be allowed to know the identity of their reviewers. Would that make for better and more constructive peer reviews? If your reputation as a learned academic and a decent human being is on the line, might you be less tempted to offer a snarky or unhelpful response? Or might such a move make academics even less willing to perform this vital task, for fear that negative reviews could come back to bite them?
Perhaps we could start by making open peer reviews an option for reviewers. That way, authors could properly acknowledge the assistance they get from their reviewers. And reviewers, in turn, might learn some important lessons about collegiality and kindness – virtues that are all too rare in academia but that we academics should value beyond rubies.