observations on peer reviewing

brace-yourself-peer-review-is-comingWriting up my fifth journal article review this month, and having received many a review during my years in the academia, some observations. Nobody asked for these, but it’s been that kind of a week.

First of all, scholars whine about doing reviews: about the effort that it requires, about the quality of the work on offer, and about many things beyond. Scholars are similarly – and often much more – unhappy about the reviews we get: about the work that the revisions require, about the quality of the reviews on offer, and about many things beyond. This feels like something of a paradox, or at lest a disconnection.

Reviewing is free labor that benefits the publishers in question, whether they are commercial or not, but is also of value to the author. Yet the same people who complain about how hard it is to write reviews complain about the reviewers doing this work with their own articles. All this gets amplified on social media into something of a collective chorus of lament where the reviewers in question may well be reading updates bitching about their apparent lack of understanding, with colleagues chiming in. This is professional sociability but not that of the very attractive kind.

1xb86fYes, some reviews seem and are unfair, but this is not my point here. It is only once that I have felt my own article/chapter grow weaker with revisions, making it less than one percent of the reviewed stuff I’ve published to date. A review may seem off but that can also be indicative of how the manuscript reads to someone else, basically making evident the author’s shortcomings in communicating the point they want to make.

69747467.jpgSecond, just please with the reviewer 2 stuff. I am a paradigmatic reviewer 2 in that I do not hesitate to reject manuscripts or suggest extensive revisions. This is what reviewers are for: we create distinctions between articles since all should, will and cannot be published as they are (or at all). Sometimes the manuscript isn’t there yet, sometimes it doesn’t quite make sense and sometimes it’s just not a very good fit for the journal. Especially in journals enjoying an avalanche of incoming manuscripts, it is no great favor to the author, the editors or other reviewers to suggest “revise and resubmit” just to have the manuscript be caught in that loop and, possibly after a few rounds, be rejected.


And no whining about desk rejects either. We all get them and they are mostly a fast way to communicate that the work is a better fit somewhere else. It does not necessarily speak of the quality of the work: an article desk rejected in one journal can be accepted “as is” in another journal of the same tier. This has happened and, unlike desk rejects, the “publish as is” reviews are as rare as unicorns.

76585552Third, a review may want to avoid 1) telling the author to make use of the reviewer’s own work, unless there’s no way around this; 2) saying that something “has to” or “needs to” be done, for nobody likes to be dictated to when it comes to our own research; 3) rejecting the work without spelling out what the issues are; or 4) venting their own antipathies or resentments concerning the person, the field of study or the methodological/theoretical approach applied.

A reviewer is not a supervisor but this does not mean that reviews cannot be pedagogical, or at least collegial. In a perfect world, the style of the review would invite an encounter where the author realizes that they’ve been read, the reviewer has taken the time to think with them, and the author is hence willing to take seriously at least some of the proposals on offer.


No, this is not all that I have to say on the matter but my review is due. It will not read “publish as is.”

1 Comment

Filed under academic pleasures

One response to “observations on peer reviewing

  1. Martin Cloonan

    Excellent piece.

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