I have sent the full revised draft off to my editor and anticipate publishing this next volume in the Short Guides series in autumn 2019. [UPDATE: Peer Review (A Short Guide) was published on 15 November 2019 and can be ordered wherever you buy books.] The one sentence summary that has been guiding my revisions is “Peer review supports academic writing!” The book has 3 main chapters: One giving an overview of peer review in scholarly publishing. One addressed to authors with practical advice for dealing with decisions and peer review comments. One addressed to reviewers with practical advice for undertaking reviews. Each of the practical chapters has a section devoted explicitly to the emotional aspects of the work. In this excerpt I share the opening of the first chapter and the section on emotional labour that sets the context for those more practical chapters. I’ve kept the headings of intervening sections in the excerpt so you can see how it fits.
What is Peer Review?
In their short history of the use of peer review in academic publishing, Aileen Fyfe and her colleagues note that it has its origins in the 18th and 19th centuries when
“most scholarly research journals and some academic books were sponsored by learned societies (and later university presses). For such organisations, referring papers to suitably-qualified members of the society or university for close scrutiny before publication was part of an editorial system that was intended to emphasise collective rather than individual responsibility, as well as to decide on the appropriate use of institutional resources.”
These processes where then adopted by commercial publishers when they entered the scholarly publishing market in the mid-twentieth century, and later by university presses, as a means of indicating their commitment to the project of advancing scholarly knowledge. At the same time, peer review spread from the natural sciences to become common in all disciplines.
As I elaborated in Scholarly Publishing (A Short Guide), the primary role of scholarly publishing is to facilitate a formal conversation (sometimes called debate) amongst scholars with the goal of advancing scholarly knowledge. These formal conversations are crucial to the creation of research knowledge. The core values of scholarly communities include both the creation of knowledge as a collective activity and freedom from commercial or political influence in the creation of knowledge. The involvement of commercial presses in publishing and changes in the relationship between scholarly communities and universities have heightened the tensions between academic ideals of openness and the free exchange of ideas to advance knowledge, on the one hand, and commercial ideals of secrecy and competitive advantage, on the other. Peer review embodies both of these core values, first by inviting peers to inform the decisions made by editors or editorial boards, who are also usually peers, about whether to publish a particular manuscript, and secondly, by inviting peers to provide editorial feedback on manuscripts to ensure that the final published version is the best contribution it can be. Peer review thus collectively shapes the scholarly conversation as a whole (which may be considered a field, discipline, or interdisciplinary area) as it makes recommendations about individual contributions to the conversation.
Peer Review as Gatekeeping
Peer Review as Editorial Labour
Peer Review and the Value of Voluntary Labour
an earlier draft of this can be found here: The value of voluntary peer review labour
Peer Review & Emotional Labour
Peer review is the collective labour of deciding which contributions do and don’t belong in a particular scholarly conversation. As such it touches on one of the biggest areas where most people feel vulnerable: belonging. How vulnerable you feel about whether you belong to the particular scholarly community represented by the journal, press, or book series will affect your confidence to review the manuscript and your reaction to reviews as an author. The more personally meaningful the subject of the manuscript, the more vulnerable you may feel in the face of criticism, as an author, or in the face of another author’s arguments, as a reviewer. The emotional aspects of peer review are not trivial. Emotional vulnerability often relates directly to material vulnerability through the ways that publications are used to award jobs, promotions, funding, and so on. Most scholars are contributing to the advancement of knowledge because that knowledge could have meaningful, material effects for some aspect of the way the world works.
Although peer review is part of a collective project of knowledge creation, the process atomizes the participants. The reviewers are not known to each other and do not sit around a table to discuss manuscripts and come to a consensus on the quality of the contribution nor what is required to make the manuscript publishable. Anonymity of reviewers and authors to each other (in at least one direction) is normal. The rationale is to enhance objectivity but it can also serve to dehumanize the other parties and excuse communicative styles that would be unacceptable face to face.
As a reviewer, there is real emotional labour involved in counteracting this potential dehumanization to write supportive and constructive comments. There is also real emotional labour involved in remaining objective and constructive when reading a manuscript that challenges (or ignores) your own contributions to the conversation or makes a contribution you have not yet published but where hoping to. As an early career scholar or a newer entrant in a particular conversation, being asked to review may require emotional labour to acknowledge your own expertise and suitability for the job.
As an author, the possibility of rejection requires emotional labour to even submit your manuscript. Your vulnerability around belonging in the conversation will require emotional labour at every step: reading the recommendation, opening the reviewer comments, and reading the reviewer comments. Your emotions need to be addressed before you can get to the intellectual work of figuring out how to revise your manuscript and address the comments. There is an opportunity for the editor to mitigate the amount of emotional labour required by doing some of the intellectual work of reconciling opposing views, or indicating which comments they feel are unwarranted or in a tone that is unwarranted, but this is often not done even where two reviewers suggestions are in direct conflict.
For both authors and reviewers your ability to separate criticism of your work from criticism of your essential self will affect the nature of the emotional work required. Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets seems relevant here. The system of peer review, and the value of knowledge production as collective labour, requires a growth mindset. Other aspects of contemporary academic cultures tend to reinforce a fixed mindset view. Her research has shown that mindset affects both how you give criticism and how you receive it. The key issue is to focus on the work itself and the contribution it makes (or could make) to the scholarly conversation rather than on the author and their abilities.
This excerpt was sent to newsletter subscribers on 6 July 2019. Subscribe to my books newsletter to receive monthly updates and notification when the book is available to order. Updated to add publication date and cover image 8 October 2019.