I’ve written Letters to a Young Reader of Reviews about being described as “execrable” and also about the time involved in writing these reviews for other readers of reviews, so it’s apt to think a little about what content goes into a reasonable review that tries to be useful.
I can’t say if I’ve written comparatively many or few blind reviews for other people to read and gnash over, mainly because as a profession we don’t seem to talk openly (or even secretively) about the topic much… Academia is secretive, and by and large what happens in blind review stays in blind review, or else I’m simply not in the club that does and hears the talking. That silence can make it difficult to get better at reviewing over time or easier for personal grumpinesses to seem like a reasonable way of opening discussions with colleagues – my thoughts here are the things I’ve done to try to write more useful peer reviews for my colleagues to read.
All in all, I’ve probably been someone’s peer reviewer for a few dozen books and the blind reviewer for somewhere more than double that number of articles. I also edit the “American Literature: The Twentieth Century” chapter of the expansive Year’s Work in English Studies (more on that in a later post), which means I write reviews of some 30–40 publications every year to give a sense of what’s happening across the field (American Poetry) while editing a book-length set of book reviews at the same time. It’s books upon books, really. Annually. Relentlessly. Richly. I’m doing my ninth year of those reviews right now.
So the question is, what’s actually helpful in a reviewer’s comments? What commentary helps to move something from a submission to a publication? After all, if the assessment and comments aren’t helpful to the publisher and author, what was the point of the volunteer labour?
The most obvious question in any assessment is “To print or not to print?” followed by “If not here, where?” I think the second can matter the most. If the work doesn’t suit the journal or press, where would it suit (after suitable revisions). Relatively few works are unpublishable in principle, but many are unsuitable. I’ve seen more than a few works that were well worth printing but certainly not where they’d been sent – getting those to press shouldn’t become a game of What Have I Got In My Pocket.
I also try to imagine myself as the author receiving the comments, and not so that I can better appreciate writers tears (I have no taste for it, and I don’t want to develop one). It’s much too easy to communicate poorly or to say something harshly that was not intended – “I have shot mine arrowroot o’er the horse” or other terrors of autocorrect can make the corrective into the crass. If I have a point, I try to say “This is the main point” or more often “I consider this the key revision to make” and “These are now suggestions for the author to consider as s/he sees fit.” The review, unlike the writing, does not need lovely prose. Likewise, and exactly as with student papers, I aim to restate the thesis in my comments with the explicit proviso that if I get it wrong, the author might wish to take steps to prevent me from being wrong in this way again.
Have you cited my friends?
When government policy sets up “impact assessments” that count citations (even those like “Any idiot would know not to trust Gifford (73)”), it creates a pressure to put pressure on others to cite. Rather than “why haven’t you cited me,” I think a better question is “What will readers expect to see?” or some form of “What revision is this project making in the established discourse?” followed up quickly with “If it’s making that revision, what works does it need to signal to make that change?”
Most importantly, if a previous scholar’s work needs a response in the article, I say so directly and emphasize that it’s my opinion that readers are likely to expect it – in contrast, if it really only merits a casual footnote at the author’s discretion, I say that instead. And if it really is only shoring up the fragments of a failed policy on “impact assessment,” the simple “It would be kind to cite Q, R, & S as part of this conversation” makes the same point. It also gives the author a chance to be seen by the editor in an act of kindness.
To cull or to cultivate?
I tend to hesitate more and more before asking for expansions or further developments in articles. It feels too much like asking an article to be more like my articles… I worry about that and as a consequence ask myself twice if that’s actually what I’m doing (“Am I just saying how I’d go about this task?”) then ask it once more for good measure.
Instead, I find myself suggesting cuts. Much like a conference paper, I very rarely look back to discover I’ve written in the margins of a journal or print off “Couldn’t this be longer?” As with the conference paper, no one takes offense if you wrap up at the 17 minute mark. And if the author really does have two distinct arguments, it’s a kindness to point out s/he really has two articles worth of work here, not just one.
Am I the right reader?
The most pressing question I ask myself as a blind reviewer is whether or not I’m the right reader. Do my own predilections and preferences lead me to like or dislike something that the target audience would feel very differently about? How does this shape my evaluation as distinct from my taste? Most especially, if I disagree with the author, have I given her or him the respect of actually saying so explicitly in the review and then outlining a reasonable way to manage those disagreements without changing his or her position? Have I shown a pathway for a positive assessment of things contrary to my own stance? Have I also made is clear to the editor that I disagree and should be read in light of that?
In a sense, much of this comes down to whether peer review is a way of broaching a conversation or guarding a portal. Conversations may have their appropriate places and polite conventions, but they are also based on some shared identity through analogy – those analogies make us a community of colleagues even amidst great differences. Guards tend toward silence and emphasize what keeps us apart.