It is common to hear laments about the quality of peer review, the problems with the system, the lack of quality control and the capriciousness of reviewers. Like any author, I have my war stories, though the real war stories more resemble the incredible revelations by Carole Blair, Julie Brown and Leslie Baxter in their classic essay “Disciplining the Feminine,” where they chronicle feminist-bating in what is clearly a corrupt review process. Countless other authors have made similar points about the politics of peer review (see Blair, Brown, and Baxter 1994; Schwartzman 1997; Fitzpatrick 2011).
Even so, there is much to defend in peer review. I like that in our business, authors have to have their work reviewed by readers who are, if not strangers, at least chosen by an editor with vision for a publication and not the author. I like that there is a difference between self-publication and other kinds of publication. Authors are not necessarily always the best judges of their own ideas or their own prose (and I would include myself in this group). But clearly, it is time for reform.
So how do we keep some of the good parts of the system while changing the problematic ones? One of the main features of peer review, and one of the most criticized, is the unfortunately-named “double-blind” process, where authors and reviewers do not know one another’s identities. I say it is unfortunately named because it partakes of all sorts of problematic constructs of blindness and sight. It oversells the importance of vision, and it assumes that the blind can’t identify things, which is patently ridiculous. These notions have been well criticized by Georgina Kleege (2005) in her analysis of the “hypothetical blind man” of philosophy, but “hypothetical” (as she calls him) also wreaks havoc in our scholarly world as well. We assume certain things of “blind” review that are untrue in practice. Many of us have been able to guess the identity of the author we are “blind” reviewing, and many of us have been able to guess the identity of our “blinded” reviews. Blindness is supposed to indicate objectivity, where the words on the page signify for just what they are. But of course they never do: we all have our critical hobby-horses, our preferred and, well, not preferred approaches to theory and method.
There are many proposals to transform institutions of peer review, and perhaps in time some will come to fruition. But there is a simple step that every concerned reviewer could take, right now, to make the process better, fairer, more useful and more human.
Reviewers, sign your reviews, and tell your editors that you decline anonymity.
This would have a few immediate effects. First, authors could read the reviews against the reviewer’s work, which would help them understand where the comments are coming from. Second, they would also get to see who is performing gatekeeping functions for the journal or press, which would help them evaluate it as a potential publication outlet and make editors accountable for their decisions. Third, it would make reviewers responsible not only for their words but for their tone since their names would be attached to it. This would result in fewer irresponsible reviews dashed off that are of little help to the author, and fewer “seek and destroy” operations. It would pressure reviewers to more carefully consider the author’s standpoint. It might even, in some cases, nurture some of that solidarity that Richard Rorty says scientists have over humanists as a result of their consensus on first principles.
I have begun the process over the past year and largely been successful. It is easy with book manuscripts where you know the authors’ names—you can just send them the review. With journals it’s a little trickier. And I have found that journal editors have wildly differing interpretations of what the “ethics” of disclosure might be, under what conditions I am allowed to attach my name to the review, and so forth. That in itself is revealing because it shows there is no clear consensus on the advantages or usefulness of the anonymization process. My choice has had no effect on my acceptance/rejection rate, but it has led to some interesting conversations. It has also forced me to be both fair and careful in my reviews. I think I was before, but now even moreso. Perhaps there are also people out there silently cursing me, I don’t know. But the beauty of tenure is that it doesn’t matter as much.
Of course the mere proposition of authors signing their reviews is a tremendous pain in the ass for everyone involved. Editors aren’t going to want to reveal the names of their reviewers because of the likely flak from authors. Reviewers aren’t going to want to spend the extra time or be accountable for saying “no” on a journal submission or book project (despite the fact that we do that all the time to students who know very well who we are). Authors may underestimate the value of a review from a person they don’t know. And reviewers without the security of tenure may not want their names out there in case vindictive senior colleagues get wind of their rejections.
My proposal is not a panacea, and it certainly won’t solve lots of other problems in publishing. It probably introduces lots of problems I haven’t even considered yet (which is why this is a blog post and why I won’t be responsible for anything bad that happens as a result of my proposal). I’m not even 100% convinced it’s a good idea. But naming has a way of imposing responsibility, and that seems like a good reason to give it a try. We could just limit it to tenured faculty to begin with and see how it works.
And unlike so many fixes to the peer-review system, we can try it out right now. All you have to do is sign your reviews.
Blair, Carole, Julie Brown, and Leslie Baxter. 1994. “Disciplining the Feminine.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 80 (November): 383-409. doi:10.1080/00335639409384084.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. 2011. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. NYU Press.
Kleege, Georgina. 2005. “Blindness and Visual Culture: An Eyewitness Account.” Journal of Visual Culture 4 (2): 179 -190. doi:10.1177/1470412905054672.
Schwartzman, Roy. 1997. “Peer Review as the Enforcement of Orthodoxy.” Southern Communication Journal 63: 69-75.
Jonathan Sterne just edited a big collection of essays entitled “The Politics of Academic Labor in Communication Studies,” where 21 authors ask us to confront and deal with the big issues we now face in a changing landscape: from defunding of universities to feed the war machine, to the politics of careers, to tyranny of powerpoint, along with a host of proposals and programs for organizing. It appears any day now in the International Journal of Communication at http://ijoc.org.