Kindness and Peer Review.

I’m never sure if I should write about this sort of thing, because I often fear that in doing so I’ll reveal myself as either a) the shabby and fraudulent academic writer that I am, or b) an academic that can’t handle the heat of the job. But I want to write about it because if I don’t then it won’t be said and we can’t actually get around to making any changes. Nadine Muller’s academic consciousness raising has taught me that much of the feeling of inadequacy that academics experience isn’t something that is, nor should be, considered ‘normal’ and it seems to serve little purpose other than to make people feel crap (read: not actually progressing the field). I know that I am definitely not alone in dealing with mental health problems that have either been caused by, or at least exacerbated by being in academia.

So, I want to spend a moment thinking about the peer review process, and the impact that it has on us. Peer review is an essential part of the academic process. It ensures that the work that we produce is up to the necessary standards, that we are progressing knowledge with work that is of the highest quality.

One criticism that has come up in conversation recently is the lack of peer review. We write and write and write for publication and sometimes when we receive feedback (good or negative) it is only a couple of lines long. But today I’m not discussing that type of feedback, I talking about the feedback that is substantive, but its substantive and mean.

Now, I should note that peer reviewers work for free, we take time out of our already busy workloads to review work, and that doesn’t always lead to the best working conditions for reviewers. But I’ve noticed that there’s a common issue where some reviewers are being unnecessarily unkind in their reviews. This is when the review reads more as ‘cutting’ than it does constructive. I always try to be constructive, even when pointing out the flaws in the work, but that doesn’t seem to be common practice (I know a number of colleagues at various levels who have all received unnecessarily mean reviews from a particular journal). The problem seems to be that reviewers seem happy with taking the author down, along with the work. This is something that can be particularly damaging to authors that are early in their career, attempting to carve out a name for themselves.

Take this comment from a recent review I received as an example:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 13.53.33

Okay, so maybe I used the phrase too often (I am reminded this later on by the reviewer):

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 14.06.15

Okay, okay, I get it. But there are ways to say it. Now that I have some distance from the review I can almost find it comical (by this point in reading the review for the first time I’d actually started crying), but I just wonder how hard it would have been for the reviewer to stop for a second and wonder if they would like to read what they were writing if it was their work under review. Such catty remarks serve not to progress the work to where it needs to be, but to push the author away from it altogether. Its hard to go back and try and take constructive comments from a review that makes you feel bad about yourself when you read it.

This following piece of writing from Bev Skeggs is one that resonates with me. I have it pinned up on my office wall as a reminder that even some of the most sophisticated thinkers struggle with their identity in academia:


I talk about my class a lot. I have spent a lot of time in the university context feeling that this is not a space for me. I don’t know the language, I don’t know how to use the space, I don’t know how to fit in. I’ve struggled to write academically throughout my career, what grammar goes where and how to use longer words. To use entirely inaccessible language here, my habitus is faulty. And sometimes it feels that the peer review process only seeks to reaffirm that to me. So, when I see:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 13.30.20

I read: ‘You don’t belong here. You are not good enough‘.

But then I reflect on how I have lots of friends and colleagues from more affluent backgrounds who have the same anxieties as me, so I’m not even sure its a class issue. I think instead its actually a “don’t be so fucking mean” issue.

And maybe the piece of work wasn’t quite right, it probably wasn’t ready for publication in that state. That’s fine, I can live with that. Most pieces of work need some or maybe even a lot of attention before they’re ready. And sometimes, a piece of work could have a fundamental flaw at some level and it won’t ever be viable for publication. But there are ways of saying it.

So, what I want to encourage us to all do is to realise that firstly, we’re not alone in this, and secondly, it’s not on. We can all do a little bit in our own reviews of other people’s work, asking ourselves if we would be happy to receive the comments we’re giving. We seem to be stuck in some nasty cycle where we get a mean review and assume that’s just how its done, repeating the cycle. For lots of reasons academia has ended up in this really shitty place where people find themselves getting ground down in all avenues of their work. Peer review could be an easy place to enact some changes.

And then again, I still feel that sharing this is a risk. Its a risk because I do run the risk of revealing myself as a poor academic. But I’m not a poor academic, and I have to have faith in that, we all do. It doesn’t feel right to say “I’m well regarded by my peers” because we’re constantly taught to second-guess ourselves. But you know what? I think I am well regarded by my peers. I have produced, and published, good academic work. I want to fucking own those statements.

We’re constantly taught that what we’re doing isn’t good enough, we’re not working hard enough, stress isn’t stress until you’re in hospital. But we have to change that. We have to say that “I want to work in a supportive, constructive and kind environment, an environment where we’re not in competition with one another, but where we want to see our colleagues strive and achieve for the good of both them, and for the progression of knowledge”, and we have to fight for achieving that environment.


3 thoughts on “Kindness and Peer Review.

  1. Amen to ALL of that, and thank you for writing! I think the whole question of mental health in higher education, whether that’s as an undergraduate, graduate student, researcher etc needs looking at and discussion. Environments can be dominated by isolation, attitudes of seeing mental health difficulties as academic weakness, thinking that if you’re good enough you will just rise above, and a lot of ‘it was tough for me, so there’s no reason it should be any different for you’. I’m not an academic but I know a fair number of people in the system, and some of their experiences have been pretty bad. …thank you again!


  2. Bravo! Some peer reviwers seem to use the cloak of anonymity as an excuse to behave in appalling ways and it really isn’t acceptable. Constructive careful thoughtful criticism is what’s needed. That doesn’t mean just being nicey nicey and just letting everything pass through withgout critique (of course not!) but it does mean being careful about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, remembering that there is another person at the receving end of that feedback.


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