Rebecca Schuman

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The Peer-Review Jerk Survival Guide

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Come and swap tales of peer-review madness! Join us in the On Scholarly Writing discussion group to tell us about your most nightmarish experiences.

I’ve written recently for a non-academic audience about the vicissitudes of academic peer review—it’s a process that is needlessly cruel and serves to alienate scholars from each other at a time when they should be clinging to each other for survival. My solution was a more timely and constructive review process, by way of an appeal to base academic self-interest: Anyone who wants to submit a journal article should first have to volunteer as a peer reviewer for said journal. And the review must be both timely and collegial. Because it’s a simple idea that will take almost no effort to implement, and will help academia immeasurably, it will probably be summarily scorned and ignored.

So, my academic friends, unless you’re part of a peer-review fraud syndicate, you will almost certainly have to deal, someday soon, with a jerky reader’s report. It might make you cry. It might make you get into a car accident. It might launch into a perplexing and irrelevant tirade about how using the digitized version of a Library of Congress source (rather than, presumably, traveling to the District of Columbia with all of your spare money) is a signifier of “scholarly sloth.” It may make you want to punch through a wall.

Friends, you are welcome to do any of these things in the privacy of your own homes (although please avoid the wall-punching if you rent, and the car accident in all circumstances). But if there’s a directive to “revise and resubmit” buried amidst this jerkitude—and if you want (or desperately need) this article to be published—then there is a protocol you must follow to minimize your future suffering and maximize your chance of seeing your work in print.

You might be thinking: That’s rich. Rebecca Schuman, professional academic failure, is trying to give me advice on academic success. Well, although I struck out on the job market four years in a row, academic publication was never my problem. In the few years I actually tried, I placed every article I sent out—some on the first pass (this one!), and one in particular after a two-year R-and-R saga under the eye of an increasingly irate reader whose penchant for writing “HUH?” with no elaboration was rivaled only by his utter disinterest in anything having to do with Ludwig Wittgenstein (who, unfortunately for me, was the subject of the article). Making this reader’s changes was excruciating, but I did it—always on time, and always with a thank you and a smile. And if you are serious about getting your academic work into print, you should, too.

When you get a “revise and resubmit,” no matter how hurtful the referees’ reports are, no matter how many months late they arrive, no matter how petty, personal, or needlessly nasty, no matter how obvious it is your reader stopped at page three, you do this, and this only: You write a chipper, two-sentence email back to the editor, after merely skimming the reports. And you say this: “I greatly appreciate the readers’ feedback and look forward to making their changes to the best of my ability. I will have a revision to you by Date X.”

Then, after a deep breath, you read the reports carefully. You cry if you need to. You punch a pillow. (You don’t ever forget your seatbelt, though!) You feel your feelings. You share said feelings with: your significant other, your cat, your mom, or any colleague you’re reasonably sure wasn’t one of the readers.

Here’s the crucial part: You do not, under any circumstances, share your hurt with the editor of the journal, even a little bit. Write whatever lash-out email you want, but keep it unsent forever. As far as this editor is concerned, you could not be more delighted to make this reader’s changes!!! Wow, they were so helpful!!!! Especially the part that said HUH? and accused you of being lazy! So true!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You want to ensure your next pass gets rejected? Then be my guest, and enter into a snippy back-and-forth. Argue about something the referees said with your editor—who is your ally, who often does not even remotely specialize in the work you sent in, who neither knows nor particularly cares about the beef you’ve just wasted hours of time drawing her into.

You want to get that revision published? Then every missive you send that editor is a) two sentences long, and b) cheerful. Period.

Your time is much better spent making these readers’ infernal changes—and I know full well that’s not easy to do. Often your reader is simply slighted that you did not cite her, so if your field is small, take a few educated guesses, and footnote four or five new people in the obscure subgenre that caused her such affront by failing to be the entire focus of your research. Other times your reader simply wants someone, somewhere, to listen to him. If he objects to a certain line of argument that you love, then do some serious rewriting to strengthen it, and then in a footnote write a gushing thank-you to the reader for making you think so much harder. That’s often enough.

Now here’s the part you’re not going to want to do. Choose the reader’s three least-objectionable points and capitulate to them fully. Now is not the time to fight for your darlings. It’s just not. (Unless, of course, you’d like your work to be rejected. Then it’s the perfect time.) Return your next pass with an additional document, a sort of “key” or index that refers the reader to exactly where you made changes. Make absolutely, positively no mention of any petty attacks or any instances in which the reader displayed her ignorance. Is this fair? No. Is any of academia fair? Hell no.

Attach your new pass to another two-sentence email to your beleaguered editor (who, remember, is helming Pretentious One-Word Greek Thing as an unpaid service overload): “Here you’ll find a complete revision of my article, “Look, I Can Do Research: Please, Please, Someone Give Me a Job.” I was so grateful to the readers for their generous feedback, and hope they enjoy taking a look at my new material.”

Repeat as many times as necessary until your article appears in print (hooray!). Add a well-deserved and hard-fought publication to your CV. Maybe even get a job. And then, someday, as I have done, take immense pleasure in undoing each and every one of those readers’ demands when you convert that article into a chapter of your book.

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