AGGRESSIVE PEER REVIEWING: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

This morning I have sent the message you can read below to the editor of an A-list journal which has rejected an article I have submitted. This is an article on which I have put long hours, much effort and much personal commitment, not to say passion. I am aware, of course, that my article can be improved with good peer reviewing, which has always been the case whenever I have been asked to reconsider aspects of my work in the past. Mostly.

Now, when I finally received an answer from the editor, after five long months of waiting, I found attached to it two reviews (whatever happened to the three-review rule?): one very tepidly suggesting that perhaps if I change most of my article there is a tiny little chance that it might be published; the other a very negative review full of unspeakable bile against my work and my person. Both reviews, by the way, coincided in censoring my feminist approach and absolutely denied my right to produce literary criticism in which I judge a woman writer an androphobe (how many times have I seen a male writer called a misogynist???).

My mouth still dries and my heart skips a beat when I re-read the reviews, and this is three weeks after receiving them. I feel hurt, unfairly wounded, and depressed as now I have to go through the harrowing process of finding a new home for a piece written specifically to meet the demands of this journal. I think all you know what I am talking about.

I must clarify that, to my surprise, the editor wrote to me that although there were serious doubts that I could manage a proper rewrite, they were willing to see a second version of my article. Here follows my reply:

Dear Editor,

Sorry it has taken me a while to answer your message. It’s been hard for me to make a decision about how to answer.

I must say that I am mystified by your decision about my article, as I fail to see how you think I can be encouraged to proceed and write a second version in view of the aggressive, negative tone of the reviews, particularly the negative one recommending rejection of my article.

I am actually dismayed to see that a publication with such a good reputation encourages this kind of appalling reviewing in which a peer feels entitled to insulting authors. I have done my best and I know that the article I submitted is a good one–all work can be improved, and I have no doubt that mine can also benefit from good reviewing. I am by no means a novice and I have passed a number of peer reviews in my career but I am no longer willing to put up with patronizing attitudes and abuse.

I will certainly discourage any colleagues and doctoral students from submitting work to your publication, and I recommend that you never employ again the services of reviewer number 1. What a sad example of academic lack of empathy, and of sheer arrogance.

Yours,
Sara Martín

I am not naming the journal because the point I am making is that too many journals and editors are encouraging inacceptable peer reviewing. And this is growing because, ashamed of rejection, we do not discuss this growing trend with our colleagues. I have produced myself a good number of peer reviews and I have judged appallingly bad work: this is why I know that not needing to add your name to a blind peer review, you feel tempted to be nasty and cruel. I have vowed to myself, however, that I will always try to be at least courteous to the author for this person, despite what I believe, might be certainly doing his/her best.

As we all know, the problem with abusive peer review is that our egos are extremely fragile and in a work atmosphere which is geared towards constant competition, one failure signifies a general personal failure. If this article I produced, which I personally think is among my best, if not the best one, has been rejected in this harsh way, how have I managed to publish anything at all? Am I a fraud? Reading a novel by Neal Stephenson these days I came across a conversation between two women in very high work positions as scientists discussing the ‘impostor syndrome’, a phrase I didn’t know. This refers to the constant anxiety that you are not good enough at what you do and that sooner or later the cover will be blown and you will be exposed as an impostor, as a fraud. Each negative review feels like that: a blowing up of the carefully built cover.

Leaving my wounded pride aside, but with a still dry mouth, I want to make a call here for a better style in peer reviewing and, if possible, to put an end to the inquisitorial practice of blind peer reviewing. It is interesting to note that when we submit our CVs for assessment to ANECA (or similar agencies), we do know the names of the persons judging us and we can even access their CVs. I am well aware that ANECA has produced a high number of aggressive reviewing, and I have even heard of a lawsuit in this regard. Yet, at least, the principle of anonymity is questioned. I think we should sign our peer reviews and we should opt for more transparent systems. I have recently participated in a few peer reviewing exercises on Academia.edu in which some colleagues have submitted work in progress and asked for opinions. The tone was what it should be among peers who respect each other and the discussion enriching.

By the way, one of the articles discussed was an impressive piece by Rosalind Gill, a very well-known British scholar, “Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia”. In it she discusses the same unprofessional conduct I am discussing here, noting that 20 years ago reviews were not as “hostile and dismissive”. When, she wonders, “did it become acceptable to write of a colleague’s work ‘this is self-indulgent crap’ or ‘put this manuscript in a drawer and don’t ever bother to come back to it’–both comments I have read in the last year on colleagues’ work. What are the psychosocial processes that produce this kind of practice?” In her view, all this negativity is the product of the “the peculiarly toxic conditions of neoliberal academia” (see my post about it). Instead of lashing out at our oppressors we lash out at each other under cover of blind peer reviewing, that’s her thesis. She might well be right.

I know that it is not the habitual practice to question negative peer reviewing and that messages like the one I have sent can make you a few enemies, particularly in local contexts (this was an international journal, by the way, published in the USA). Yet, a while ago a colleague whom I respect profoundly and who is extremely proficient as an academic, told me she had started emailing back in the tone I have used in my message whenever she got a negative review. No, it’s not a good idea to do that if you are a post-grad student still in the process of hardening your skin against rejection. Yet, there comes a time when enough is enough and after twenty years in the publishing circuit I am just not willing to put up with gratuitous abuse. I’ll insist: I am willing to accept constructive, positive criticism but never again abuse.

And if you must reject my work a ‘No, thank you’ will do.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

10 comentarios en “AGGRESSIVE PEER REVIEWING: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

  1. Very well said, I couldn’t agree more. In fact I’ve always thought the double blind peer reviewing process was intrinsically flawed. Why should reviewers hide in this cloak of academic anonymity? If one of them has deeply ingrained prejudices against, for example, a white Western woman writing about black Muslim men, well, she has no chance of getting her piece published. If you have the bad luck to come up against a narrow-minded know-all, even if your second reviewer thinks your article is excellent, the editor will ask you to rewrite your article. The whole system would improve if reviewers had to sign their names. I know there’s a danger of favouritism (but doesn’t that go on anyway?) but at least it would put an end to all these unnecessarily insulting comments.

  2. Thanks, Felicity. I already have messages from two young academics trying to get over very cruel comments in negative peer reviewing – I’m glad I am stirring that hornets’ nest! And I don’t see the danger of favouristim, as signing a review also means you risk your reputation by being lenient to bad academic work in the name of friendship. We’ll see if anything changes… Sara

  3. Some rather progressive journals are now publishing the whole process of reviewing, letters and all, together with the (accepted) article. Maybe this will discourage some people tempted to use inappropriate tone or language… but of course most negative reviews will not result in the article being published, so the best one can do is what you did—at least make your complaint heard!

    …And, «impostor syndrome», I like that, it is a much-needed term, and a widespread ailment!

  4. Thanks, José Ángel. This gives me the chance to add that the editor replied to my message arguing that she saw nothing objectionable in the reports and that it is customary for articles received to go through at least four revisions (?). She, however, and I quote, ‘respects my feelings’ and understands I wish to withdraw the article from consideration. This presents me as a sentimental, weak thing while making no attempts to correct the situation. A scientist friend tells me she has never received an abusive review and that perhaps in the Humanities we’re more vulnerable to ideological censorship in reviews – which might be the case…
    Yes, ‘impostor syndrome’…
    Sara

  5. Sorry to interfere, but the fact that the editor «respects your feelings» actually presents you as a sentimental weak thing, and that enrages me so very much, because in the end it seems to me that a) they are rejecting your work based on prejudices to your feminist approach/agenda/call it what you want; b) they are dismissing your complaint based on patriarchal prejudices which say that women are weak, sentimental and visceral. This makes me very, very, very ENRAGED and yes, sentimental and visceral. Urgh.

    Hugs!

  6. I must say, Sara, that the editor is a woman. And my guess is that the reviewer who dismissed my work is also a woman, annoyed by my own dismisal of a woman writer as an androphobe. I’m speculating, of course. Again, the principle at work is that the reviews are not signed and we authors have no right to reply. The editor seemed puzzled by my reaction, and was by no means annoyed. I confess I felt quite foolish for a second… until I recalled the messages received from colleagues explaining similar situations.

  7. The Capatcha robot checker asks questions in Catalan.
    How fair is that?

    But apart from that, I can assure you that, contrary to what you guess, it is all the same or even worse in science.
    Peer review is just organized crime. It serves a few old mafiosi who have put their hands on the editorial process of a journal. In physics you achieve that typically by creating a hype, i.e. something very glittering but totally empty when you scratch the surface of it. It is just a dishonest move to get to the front page. When you discover the fraud, you will not be allowed to deflate the balloon. It must and will stay there. Because it is these kinds of corrupted people they want on the desks.
    It is the very same type of cruelty you see in the movie «I Daniel Blake» by Ken Loach. It is just ultra-liberalism at its best. All these mobbing procedures are installed to make money by trampling people’s rights. And to achieve this you need bureaucracy that writes rules people can obey, such that they do not have to bother about the harm they do, because it is in the rules. That is called Eichmann’s argument. And the monsters who take pleasure in doing harm rise to the top. In peer review, the very comfortable rule is anonymity. Denouncing what happens in peer review will not change things. They know damned well what is happening, they have designed it for that purpose.

  8. Hi Gerrot! Catalan is the official language of my university and I’m not sure I can change the options but I’ll try to. Thank you for the message. I totally agree with you that «In peer review, the very comfortable rule is anonymity». I understand peer review whenever it is not censorious but I think we have a right to know who is judging our work, and we all should have the obligation to sign our own reviews. That would make us more constructive. Thank you again for the alternative scientific view. Sara

  9. Hello Sara,

    Thank you for your very kind answer.
    The following websites will reveal how very right you are about anonymous peer review:

    The first two ones are absolutely devastating reading, they are about peer review in medicine in the USA:

    https://www.peerreview.org/articles/abuse.htm
    https://www.jpands.org/vol12no1/huntoon.pdf

    The other ones are about regular peer review in science:

    https://kingsreview.co.uk/articles/how-academia-and-publishing-are-destroying-scientific-innovation-a-conversation-with-sydney-brenner/

    https://retractionwatch.com/2014/12/22/peer-review-isnt-good-dealing-exceptional-unconventional-submissions-says-study/

    https://ipscell.com/2012/05/dirty-dozen-easy-steps-to-killing-a-paper-during-review-elephant-in-the-lab-series/

    I have been the victim of this at regular intervals along my career and have tried to fight it, because it is a kind of bullying.
    Along the way, I lost all illusions about any fairness in «democracy» and
    it has left very, very deep scars in my soul.
    In the end, you are no longer the same person you were before and you regret having lost that candid child you once were.
    The only thing I can advise you is to persevere even in the worst periods of adversity.
    When you meet this kind of thing, it could mean you are good enough to be envied.
    If what you did were the pink of mediocrity, they would not come after you.
    And I sincerely hope they will not get at you as badly as they got at me.

    Best regards

    Gerrit

  10. Thank again, Gerrit, it’s great to share information with a scientist and I’m only sorry that it is of a negative kind. I keep on telling my doctoral students that the first academic skill you need to acquire today is how to grow a thick skin. I’ve been an academic for 25 years and my skin is not yet thick enough – academic studies of rejection indicate that a negative criticism has the impact of 12 positive assessments…
    Thank you again, Sara

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