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:
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.
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.
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