Towards a truly constructive criticism; or, the perils of peer review

19 Feb

Every academic experiences it at one time or another, and yet I have not read an honest discussion of what it feels like to have one’s work raked over by an anonymous peer review. The whole endeavour of scholarly enterprise depends on the rigorous assessment of work provided by review processes, and at least in theory these are freed from toadyism or fear of reprisal by the mechanism of anonymity. And I do agree that anonymity is significant. If someone asks you for your opinion of their work, it is often hard to really give it honestly. You worry about their feelings if you say something critical, perhaps, toning it down because you don’t want to jeopardise your friendship. And a more junior person may well feel prevented from honesty in some measure if asked to assess a more senior colleague’s work.

Nonetheless, there is also something about the nature of anonymous comment which invites a highhandedness or snarkiness of manner that I think is one of the curses of academe. The fact that you do not have to worry about the author’s feelings in an anonymous review seems to be taken by some as an invitation to unfeeling waspishness, or a chance to blow one’s own trumpet in an underhanded way.

I have received some of the best and most valuable constructive criticism of my own work via anonymous review. I can absolutely say that it has challenged me in ways that I am hugely glad for now, and know that this will continue to be the case. Criticism is difficult to receive even at the best of times, but there is no growth without it – and it is in many ways a boon to be able to receive it privately, having time to absorb it without anyone witnessing your initial (often crestfallen) reaction. But I have also received nasty reviews, and even if sweetened by recommendations of publication, or at least some faint praise, it makes for an excoriating experience. Early academic life is an uncertain and difficult business enough as it is without having work you have laboured over for months imperiously dismissed. And at such times, there is a sense of injustice that  it has been provided without accountability because it is anonymous. 

This post in part a reminder to myself: may I avoid the little thrill of superiority that comes from demonstrating my command of an intellectual field (or what I imagine to be my command of the field) at another person’s expense. I think we need to work hard at fostering a culture of truly constructive criticism: warm, rigorous, involved, aiming at really getting to the nub of an argument or expanding ways of thinking about an issue rather than choosing to snipe at someone else’s contribution, or to seek self-aggrandisement that way.

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2 Responses to “Towards a truly constructive criticism; or, the perils of peer review”

  1. Dr Pete 24 February 2008 at 4:00 pm #

    Ahhhhhh peer review. That venerable institution of anonymous review of ones work by ones “peers”. The editors of journals who sit on the editorial board to just pad their resumes and don’t vet reviews for accuracy. The reviewers who, if not outrightly suppressing the competition, pass on their duties to graduate students who aren’t familiar with their own field let alone somebody else’s. Said graduate students going on little anonymous power trips, missing completely the point of what’s been written, citing references to wikipedia in their review (I could not make this stuff up) and, apparently, not reading large chunks of the actual manuscript thereby missing a crucial parameter mentioned not less than four times in a twelve page letter then condescendingly suggesting that I, the author, be more accurate in my stipulations. I used to think peer review was an excellent institution, aimed at giving dispassionate critique on the ideas, methodology and results that (in the sciences, at least) could be independently tested and validated using universal scientific laws. Instead, it appears this virtuously heroic practice is nothing more than an extension of the greater internet fuckwad theory:
    http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19

    Can you tell I’ve had a couple of knock-backs recently?

  2. Melissa Bellanta 25 February 2008 at 8:12 pm #

    Little anonymous power trips. Exactly what I was talking about. And if Dr Pete is copping them, even more so.

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