Last spring when I posted on the vagaries and arbitrary nature of the peer review process for publishing journal articles and books, we had quite a conversation. Here are two articles that address peer review for journal publishing from both sides: an editor of a top journal in her field, and a professor who appreciated her helpful comments but wanted to remind editors of their responsibilities in upholding the integrity and professionalism of the process.
First, Lynn Worsham, the editor of a “quarterly journal of rhetoric, writing, culture, and politics,” gives a number of common-sense how-tos for submitting one’s work to a scholarly journal. I especially like her first point: make sure that your work is suitable for the journal in question, and (paraphrasing here) indicate that you’ve at least skimmed one or two recent issues. (I always hit the 10-year backlist of a journal heavily so that I can read and appropriately cite some of the journal’s articles I may have missed.) This jibes with my experience serving on and chairing search committees: having to evaluate totally inappropriate job applications that were clearly fired like grapeshot from a cannon, instead of tailored to address our specific job ad and qualifications. I totally get where she’s coming from. Worsham boils it all down helpfully to a list of bullet points:
Familiarize yourself with the types of articles that a journal publishes and only submit work appropriate for that journal. Pay close attention to the tone and style of work published in the journal and try to duplicate it in your own work. Follow, religiously, the style guide used by the journal. No hybrid styles! Only submit work that you believe to be final, publishable copy. A poorly proofread manuscript wastes your time and mine. Placing your work in the context of articles previously published in the journal is good scholarly practice and helps make your article a better “fit” for the journal. Follow the journal’s submission rules — exactly. Develop a healthy attitude toward rejection. You know from the outset that competition is fierce, so maintain a positive attitude.
Next, Kevin Brown in “What Professors Want from Journal Editors and Peer Reviewers,” compliments Worsham’s article, but addresses the frustrations on the other side. For the most part, his righteous complaints boil down to lengthy delays in the peer review process, and editors who don’t communicate with authors about the status of their manuscripts. But perhaps above all, he warns editors and manuscript reviewers to respond with constructive criticism instead of nastiness when rejecting articles. He writes, “[W]e know that editors will decide, for whatever reason, that our submissions should not be published in their journals. However, that does not give them license to insult either our work or us. In speaking to friends and colleagues, we all have horror stories about responses from editors and readers that are nothing more than ad hominem attacks or a dismissal of ideas because of the readers’ particular view of a work.”
He then relates a personal brush with evil, in the form of an anonymous (natch!) peer review:
This type of response can be especially problematic for graduate students and professors just beginning in a field. When I was in graduate school, I submitted an essay on Edith Wharton to a journal. The essay was the best one I had ever written, as far as I could tell, and I was eager to begin participating in what I hoped would be my future discipline. I attended a college, though, where professors never discussed publishing, so I had no knowledge of it before I entered graduate school. Not surprisingly, the journal turned down the essay and rightly so, as it was certainly not the caliber of writing that editors should expect. However, the response has stuck with me for years, as the reader simply wrote, “This is a good essay, for an undergraduate.” When I tell that to most people, they are surprised that I stayed in the profession and that I ever submitted anything again.
Ouch! That “undergraduate” comment was entirely gratuitous. What an a$$hole. Brown continues:
As professors we are not afraid of a healthy debate about ideas, and we seek honest feedback on our work. However, insults, whether directed at those ideas or at us personally, have no place in the critical debate. We would never allow our students to write essays using some of the responses I have seen from readers, nor would we write those comments on our students’ papers.
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What professors truly want is constructive feedback that will make them better writers, thinkers and researchers. If, especially in our early days, we have somehow overlooked a seminal work (or a work that a reader at least believes is seminal), or have faulty logic, then, please, tell us so, but do so in an effort to make us and, therefore, the discipline, stronger.
UPDATE, this morning: Um, Kevin Brown (and everyone)–please avoid use of the adjective “seminal.” It’s just, well, eeeewww.
Historiann will once again renew her call for all peer reviewers to sign their reviews rather than hide behind anonymity, although she’s sure she’s vox clamantis in deserto. (For those of you who don’t read Latin and/or didn’t go to a Bible college or Catholic school, the rough translation is “pissing up a rope.”) Anonymity on the part of reviewers is cowardly and encourages bad behavior (like that on the non peer-reviewed internets, by the way). Clearly, people write differently and give different advice if their identities are known, so cowgirl up and sign those reviews. As a very wise cowgirl once said, “[i]t’s a rigged system, but we can each make the process a little fairer and a little more transparent for each other.”
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