Along the path to publication, most academic work undergoes anonymous peer review.* Depending on the field, an article will be reviewed by two to four reviewers. These reviewers include broad readers in the academic field or discipline who are not necessarily experts in the particular subject area—a historian of southern Africa reviewing a work on eastern Africa; people who work in closely related subject areas and, most often, share methods, so can comment on how those methods have been used—people who work quantitatively reviewing similar work; people who work in the same subject area and use the same archives—an expert in the Harlem Renaissance reviewing work on the Harlem Renaissance, for instance; people who are visible, so get requests to review work, regardless of field or method specialty—I’ve been asked to review work by historians, anthropologists, and sociologists on African sexuality, because I’m an African who studies sexuality.
My favorite reviewers remove their egos and interests from the reviewing process so they can engage what is submitted, not what they wish had been submitted. They point out what is strong, credible, convincing, surprising, exciting, and provocative about a work–any of these words can be used. The implicit message of this strategy is “do more like this.” They point out what is less credible, less convincing, less interesting. Often places where your courage has failed and, instead of pursuing the bold implications of your work, you fall back on banal claims. After reading such reviews, you feel supported and inspired to persist with the work, even if the reviewer found 3 paragraphs out of 60 to be the most convincing. Sometimes, we need to be told to pursue the insights that frighten us.
I learned how to think about reviewing this way from my diss advisor, Siobhan Somerville, who has the most amazing capacity to read the work as it is, and provide space for the work to develop at all its stages, from intuition to hypothesis, archive building to theorizing, claim to description, first to final draft. From her, I learned that we need to give people room to figure out what they are noticing without directing gazes too much. And, then, when appropriate—I can’t be more specific—we offer shaping comments: this is strong and credible; this is provocative, but less credible; this holds my attention; this makes me pay attention to other people, not you; this is fun to read; this is tedious. These are my terms, not hers. She modeled for me how to engage work.**
*This blog post has not undergone peer review
**I’m going to use the word work a lot. I prefer it to text or article or book or essay or talk. My small way of making academic labor visible as labor.
Peer review asks you to use your expertise without letting your ego get in the way. This often feels impossible, especially given that so many academic egos are founded on expertise. Academic ego uses expertise to gatekeep knowledge and method, to conserve field and profession—this is also true of interdisciplinary fields.
In its most ordinary form, academic ego manifests as, “I would not have done it like this.” I suspect that everyone who peer reviews has moments like this. The trick is to recognize that claim and, as much as possible, to set it aside. As much as possible.
At a moment when peer-reviewed publications have assumed immense importance—as requirements to apply for academic jobs, as requirements to receive raises, as requirements to receive promotions, as requirements to keep jobs, as requirements to remain in decent standing with one’s department and institution—Reviewer 2 represents an impediment, not simply to publication, but to all the potential benefits that come from publication.
Reviewer 2—ostensibly a peer reviewer—stands in for the many academic peers who are peers in purely formal, academic terms: those who have attended PhD-granting institutions, those who have read a handful of shared books, those who register for and sometimes attend academic conferences, those who skim books at bookstores, those who teach undergraduate students, or any combination of these elements.
Anonymous Peer Review depends on these fictions of the peer, overlooking the different ways academics are resourced and the different geohistories academics write from and into. The fiction of the field, a construct of canonical methods and texts, subtends the work of anonymous peer review.
Perhaps a few examples?
An academic from a well-resourced institution with access to the latest books and journals reviews work by an academic from a poorly resourced institution, with a tiny budget for journals or books, and certainly no access to the most recent work. The well-resourced academic claims that the work submitted for consideration does not account for the most recently published work. The poorly resourced academic struggles to find this recent work or simply gives up, because it would be too costly. I recently faced a situation that would have required buying 5-6 recent academic books to comply with a reviewer’s demand. I don’t have the budget for that.
An academic from the U.S. reviews work from Canada or South Africa and demands that the work include more U.S. sources, because the academic is unfamiliar with the non-U.S. work. Should non-U.S. scholars comply with these demands—we are often forced to—the work becomes Frankensteinian , a bad stew of theories and methods and archives and arguments that fit oddly, if at all. A lot of African scholarship published in U.S. and UK journals reads this way.
Most academics are not trained how to peer review. We receive our doctorates and start getting invitations to review work and try to figure out what we’re doing based on our prior experiences as students and teachers, first and foremost, and as people who’ve been peer reviewed, often unkindly.
My least favorite kind of peer reviewer treats the exercise as though it’s a pedagogical exercise with an unread person. Instead of focusing on what the work makes possible, the reviewer dismisses it as a mess of unthought errors. Some people appreciate these kind of reviews, and call them “thorough.” I think they are silly and nitpicky, and waste time for the reviewer and the author. This kind of peer review is especially egregious in fields that rely on interpretation—most fields. We will disagree about the implications of archives and data. We simply will. Sometimes due to method. Often due to ideology.
During a roundtable I watched on YouTube—we thank the internets—historian Stephanie Smallwood explained that when economic historians read her work, they said nothing in her archive was new. She agreed, and said she was looking for something different, for the people and the stories, not the numbers. My favorite work—by Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, Omise’eke Tinsley, Nanjala Nyabola, Grace Musila, Pumla Gqola, Wambui Mwangi—does similar things, finding humans and their relations, care and beauty, in archives and spaces where others find numbers and reports, criminality and deviance. Imagining and narrating worlds where we have been told nothing exists beyond the fact and the number, the statistic and the powerpoint.
Given academic hierarchies and how the academy reproduces itself—to survive, all institutions must reproduce themselves and the labor that sustains them, reading Althusser taught me—few of us working outside established canons and methods are reviewed by similar people. Most often, we encounter those who teach and publish within established canons and methods, those who believe their work is to defend the field against interlopers. Some of these people are similarly minoritized and, having fought their way into academic hierarchies by mastering established canons and methods, resent those trying something else, and consider us undisciplined thieves, unwilling to put in the hard work of reproducing fields as they exist.
At my most generous, I would say Reviewer 2 represents a structural-ideological figure, driven by anxieties about the present and future of the academy, convinced that maintaining established canons and methods will guard against the anti-intellectual mission of the neoliberal university. If the work remains “consistently excellent,” Reviewer 2 thinks, then even should the university die, the work will remain. It’s a nice fantasy.
I’m not this generous.
Reviewer 2 fails to extend intellectual curiosity and generosity to work that is different, work that uses different methods and archives, work that draws from and builds different theoretical trajectories, work that speaks from and to different geohistories.
For those who need to publish to pursue jobs, raises, promotions, and job security, Reviewer 2 incarnates the many structural impediments posed by institutions and the academy in general. Reviewer 2 is why new hires are paid more than long-serving faculty. Reviewer 2 is why the article stalled and the book project was abandoned. Reviewer 2 is why universities have enough money to build gyms and luxurious dorms, but not to hire full-time faculty or give graduate workers proper salaries.
Reviewer 2 is the grad school professor we hated in a required class.
Reviewer 2 is fantasy and fact, the inescapable nightmare and the banal experience.
Intellectual curiosity and generosity create shared space for thinking and learning. Few of those who submit work for publication imagine our work is perfect. At our best, we submit careful work, knowing that we need other eyes and minds, who will see what we and our intellectual intimates are unable to see. At our best, we submit work that has gone through multiple stages—as seminar papers and conference papers and workshopped drafts and multiple drafts. We do not ask to be pronounced perfect. We ask for care. And if not care, curiosity and generosity.