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How I got peer-reviewed last summer

The current peer review system chews up and spits out authors – where reviewers are acting more as gatekeepers for publishers than as advising peers.

BY P. NYM | OCT 27 2020

There are fleeting times when being an academic reminds me of how I felt during my Master’s thesis examination: peppered with questions, my synapses trying to fire off semi-adequate responses. It’s as if I’ve been blindfolded, spun around, then get the blindfold whipped off and told, “You’re good enough!” There are then handshakes all around before I’m sent on my way. But I never thought I would feel as many spin-a-rounds or more bewildered and dismayed by criticism, years after getting my PhD, because of peer review.

I know many academics have their own peer review horror stories. But, as peer review becomes more distanced and remote (and even more cold and removed?), perhaps we can do more than just commiserate or set up a Refereek! Twitter feed. Perhaps, somehow, we can push for a better, fairer peer review culture… or at least a much less destructive one.

My spin-dry experience began a few months before the summer, when I got the first round of criticisms about my book, which had been sent out for peer review by a reputable university press. (It was, as it happens, the press of the same university where I had done my Masters two decades before.) I looked through the feedback. One of the three peer reviewers called me a “master of the sentence”; whereas another, A2, encouraged me to “re-evaluate [my] prose at its most basic level.” I felt as if one master carpenter had called me Jesus, while another had told me to re-learn how to use a saw. And neither pronouncement was enlightening.

Still, two of the three were encouraging and offered a fair bit of helpful criticism and advice that I could work with. I detailed in responses how I would do so, beavered away on the edits (including cutting more than 8,000 words), compiled a checklist of all that I had done, and resubmitted the edited manuscript and the checklist.

In two of the three responses to the revised manuscript, which came back mid-summer, the reviewers wrote of the book being ready now and looked forward to seeing it in print. A2, however, went so far as to say that, despite my revisions and the checklist, reading the revised text was akin “to reading an ostensibly revised student essay and feeling like I spent more time searching for changes than the student spent making them”; A2 continued, “I would gladly award [Nym] a PhD for his knowledge and effort.” I didn’t feel so A1 after all that, especially since I wasn’t in need of another PhD, but I responded to this dissenting opinion, noting the reviewer’s condescension and cantankerousness. The editorial board soon approved my manuscript for publication and the acquisitions editor talked of applying for funding.

But there was one last hurdle – a review committee at the press, made up of a few of the university’s senior scholars. Their comments included, in the first paragraph, the remark that my writing made “comprehension on the simplest of levels a struggle.” And then this reminder: “Subject, verb, and object are the grammatical core of a sentence.”

After feeling spun around, blindfolded, punched in the gut, and told “You’re not good enough!,” I found I had a few additional reactions. One was the fleeting thought that this person was right. Even worse, what if, all along, my subjects has been objectifying my verb? Another was an out-of-academy-experience, where I imagined explaining this moment to anyone walking by outside the ivory tower. “What have you been working on these days?” “Oh, a book for the last 12 summers.” “Is it being published?” “It almost was, but got rejected in the end.” “Aw, too bad. Why?” “They said I couldn’t write.” “Um, but aren’t you…” [awkward pause] “Yep, I’m an English professor.” [loooonger awkward pause]

I realized I didn’t feel so much spun-around and sucker-punched as led down a garden path at night only to be lightly stabbed in the back by pen-wielding strangers.

I promptly pulled my manuscript from the press – the review committee had the final say and it essentially disliked my academic prose-style, agreeing with A2, so there was nothing I could do (short of hiring a mercenary, will-take-magic-beans-as-payment academic ghostwriter to rewrite the entire book).

But I can offer some suggestions to my fellow academics, and to academic presses and their editors, of what we should encourage in order to reduce such moments of nasty, nowhere-near-good-enough criticism in our peer review culture.

  1. Make the peer review process and review committee process much clearer and more detailed. In my case, the press never made it clear how many “positive” peer-reviews out of three are required, how “positive” those should be (criteria? numerical rankings? I saw nothing like that). And I was never told that the review committee could essentially derail the publication of a manuscript by backing a lone dissenting peer reviewer.
  2. Editors should ensure that the comments of peer reviewers and review committees are neither destructive nor unprofessional. Talking-down to any academic – e.g., as if they need to review the basics of language – is not only insulting but destructive, as it burrows away at an author’s core self-belief (that they can write). Such comments only reflect badly on the press and on the peer review process, undermining its raison d’être – constructive criticism.

There are larger questions, too. For instance: what sort of academic culture is being developed when professors, acting more as gatekeepers for publishers than as advising peers, can deride each others’ work so casually?

In the meantime, though, I’m just going to have to return to my workshop, get back up on my sawhorse, and try to figure out my objects and my subjects. Keep on verbing.

P. Nym is the alias of an associate professor of English in Canada.

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  1. Charls Kingsfield / November 4, 2020 at 20:25

    I’m very sorry to hear this, P. Nym, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Refereeing to determine soundness and quality is a better method than, say, rolling dice, but too many academics are ludicrously territorial and, to be blunt, take themselves too seriously. Refereeing travesties based on paper-thin technical distinctions abound. Best of luck. Keep on verbing!