What follows is a discussion of a higher education topic. Such concerns are not everyone’s interest, of course. (*boredom warning*)
The practice of peer-review is in the spotlight again with the trading of essays by Rebecca Schuman and Charles Green. I have broader reactions to the three essays in the chain (1, 2, 3) but I will try to keep them to myself. Here I want to limit myself to one specific response and I share it in the hope that—for my friends and students at least—I can provide a counter-narrative to one present in the works that I have flagged.
In defending herself against Green’s criticisms of her earlier Slate essay “Revise and Resubmit” Schuman describes it as a “roast.” Ok. As a folklorist, I was trained to cultivate a particular affection for satirical and counter-hegemonic genres. They do important work. In sharing my own experience here, I do not wish to deny the experience of the “about 100” colleagues who shared their peer-review horror experiences with Schuman. I am no trying to criticize anyone. I sympathize with Schuman’s self-appointed task and with those who find her account of a failed peer-review system familiar.
But I also sympathize with Green. As a “roast” built of “hyperbole” and “dark humor” (self-characterizations in her second essay) Schuman’s account is a caricature (my characterization) and thus trades in “stereotypes” (Green’s characterization). With only my experience to go on (but I have a good bit), I would simply like to offer a counter image of peer-review.
I have experienced peer-review of the sort that Green and Schuman are talking about (and there are other forms too) as a scholarly author and as a editor of three scholarly journals: Museum Anthropology (2005-2009), Journal of Folklore Research (2012-2013), and Museum Anthropology Review (2007-present). As an editor, I have solicited peer-reviews of scholarly articles for a continuous decade. As an author, I have been receiving them for more than two decades. As a peer-reviewer, I have been writing them for 15 years.
Maybe I am lucky. I know that I am privileged in many ways, but I have never received (as an editor or an author) one example of the kind of destructive peer-review report around which Schuman’s initial account is built. Am I denying that they exist? Absolutely not. What I am doing is stressing—for emerging authors who might be confused by the exaggerated account that she presents—that her story is not the only story. At the very least, authors submitting work to one of the three journals that I have been involved in editing are very unlikely to receive anything other than a constructive (moderately constructive sometimes, very constructive sometimes) assessment of their work. (If I were to receive a hurtful or pointless peer-review report, my job is to filter or discard it. In actual practice, my role is to frame and constructively contextualize the real life reports that actually do come in.)
Why am I bothering to write this on a day in which I have other things I should be doing? The peer-reviewers who have helped me make my work better and to get it published appropriately have freely given of themselves on my behalf and I want to thank them and to make clear that I do not see them represented in Schuman’s roast. As an editor, I am constantly asking very busy people to give their time and expertise for the benefit of colleagues, often strangers. Many say no because they honestly can’t fit one more thing into professional lives that are sometimes (in my world, increasingly) impossible. Some say no because they are free-riders who take from a system to which they are unwilling to give. A great many say yes and they say yes not to be the monsters lurking in Schuman’s essay, but because the wish to give back to a field that they love and that has given them a great deal. As an editor, one of my jobs is to honor and thank them for their generosity. I do so again here.
I work in relatively humble fields—folklore studies, Native American and Indigenous studies, and cultural anthropology. These fields also have a deeper than typical understanding of gift economies and of community building practices* and I find that most scholars working within them to be unusually generous and, more often than not, community-minded. I cannot speak of the cultures of macroeconomics, cell biology or German literature studies. I count myself fortunate in many ways, including in my choice of scholarly communities. In my own little world, extra helpings of support and healthy peer-review attention is doled out on those struggling to get their careers underway under difficult circumstances.
This post may seem a product of the pollyanna principle. I think that I have earned a place among critics of contemporary scholarly communication practices.** I believe that we should be experimenting with peer-review reform (see, for example, the positive ideas that Shuman concludes her first essay with) and pursuing a diversity of alternatives. I support those colleagues who are studying—seriously studying—scholarly communications practices, including peer-review. I believe, as I have written and said too many times, that we have tremendous needs to, and opportunities to, reform the way that scholarship is conducted and communicated. On some level I am sympathetic with Schuman’s roast and I am definitely sympathetic to those for whom peer-review has been horrible without ever being uplifting.
But I also want my students to know, as Green is suggesting, that extremes aren’t norms. Or, if what Schuman is describing actually ARE norms somewhere, they are (almost certainly) not norms in my fields. To my students I offer tempered hope. To my peer-reviewing colleagues, I say thanks.
* People bring musical instruments to my national meeting because jam sessions are a longstanding norm there. Countless other humane practices are woven through them–breakfasts that pair new students with senior scholars, receptions for first time attendees, for international attendees, a memorial exhibition for remembrance of deceased friends/colleagues, etc. The scholarly life (which is not the same thing as higher education) is a mess, but it is not an absolute and complete l mess.
** See this and writings cited therein.