The Oppression of Peer Review

Another autumn and a whole stack of promotion and tenure files to look at. The phrase “gold standard,” attached to peer-reviewed articles, always strikes me. In the ladder of the evaluation process, the peer-reviewed article stands proudly and invincibly at the top. The more of these you have, the more unassailable your dossier.

Like all things in life, this invincibility turns out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, peer-review ensures a process of quality control. Your work is read by at least two experts who pass judgment on its value. They often suggest revisions for improving the manuscript. Their advice, formal and informal, helps the editor make a decision about publication.

There is no doubt that we, as authors, profit from this procedure, even if we get frustrated by the delays. (Often we are at fault, wanting referees to evaluate our manuscript immediately while we dilly-dally with the manuscripts of others.)

I can say that I have been helped enormously by this practice, having revised extensively everything that I have published. In one evaluation of a book-manuscript, I got eleven, single-spaced pages, of both general and specific comments that encouraged me to rethink the project. This is peer-review at its best. (And dear anonymous colleague, in the unlikely event that you are reading this blog, please know that I am eternally grateful for your generosity and selflessness.)

This type of collegiality is often, of course, counter-balanced by unhelpful commentary, sometimes dipped in sarcasm and a few times in venom. We’ve all had to swallow this type of review that either does not understand the project or simply wishes to destroy it by clipping wings, cutting down to size, or letting blood. (You choose the metaphor.)

But this is not what concerns me here. Rather I worry how the review process—from the one assessing an article for a journal to the more complicated one appraising a candidate for promotion—can be transformed into a procrustean table of orthodoxy. It forces scholars, particularly younger ones, to conform literally to what sells. That is, to the reigning assumptions about knowledge in that particular field.

If you need six letters for your promotion (and in some “better” institutions ten or twelve) and if these letters have to be uniformly panegyric in tone, then you wonder what type of scholarship will get promoted—careful and methodical, to be sure, but not one taking risks or striving to change perceptions.

I have written many letters for promotion and I have read hundreds of these during my tenure in departmental, college, and university promotion and tenure committees. And I know the weight of one “nuanced,” let alone a negative letter. You cannot get six people, let alone, twelve, to agree about the power of a candidate if that person is doing unorthodox work. At least one reader will conclude that the work in question is substandard or does not fulfill the criteria of excellence, and this letter can often kill the promotion (since we all want to seem tough in these committees and turn some people down).

At best, the peer review evaluates competence and allows committees to assess the place of the candidate in the discipline. At its worst, it invites sycophancy and ostentation. Read enough of these letters in one sitting where everyone is “great,” “luminous,” and “original” and you reach for your calculator to divide the encomia by ten.

To be fair, this is the faculty version of the grade inflation in the university. Taken together they constitute the great academic bubble. But there is no danger of it ever bursting because we’re all happy with it. Everyone involved is brilliant—from the parents, to the students, to the professors, to the administrators. So let’s all keep praising our dazzling selves.

But it also encourages scholarship that is cautious, careful, and sensible. Let’s look at the PMLA. Would it be rude or unprofessional to ask if you hold this to be a relevant publication for literary studies, this the flagship journal of the Modern Languages Association? Have you read any articles there that are really path-breaking or cutting-edge? What is wrong with the PMLA and why is no one saying anything about it?

The writing seems so careful, so restrained, so risk averse, so reluctant to disagree or to think of the big picture. But how can you expect authors to take risks when they have to satisfy so many people in the editorial process, from the external referees to the editorial board? And why should younger scholars endanger their career, knowing that they need peer-review publications?

There is no doubt that peer review can evaluate scholarship, catch mistakes, point to new directions in the project, and help the authors come to better grips with their argument.

It can also end up reproducing what is already out there.

This is the trade-off we get for wanting to be original.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The original post was inadvertently uploaded without paragraph breaks. The author's paragraph breaks have been restored in the current version.]

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