“Gatekeepers,” I sputtered again. Countless times I have received reviews of my work, seen that of other scholars, of graduate students, or heard through the grapevine stories about condescending, dismissive, and sometimes just plain mean peer reviews. While empathy and kindness may not be the most pressing issue in peer review, the lack of them is indicative of other problems. Gatekeeping is one. The changing political economy of the of the university, is another.
The service section of my CV has a long list of journals and publishers for whom I regularly review article and book manuscripts. I bet yours does too. This is how we keep the profession’s work moving along and it is how we keep up, at one level, with what is new and cutting edge. It is also where we have the possibility to give feedback that might help someone hone their work. That is the exciting part. I am far more inclined to agree an article or book manuscript review than to review a published book. At the manuscript stage, you can be in conversation with an author. Theoretically, all the identifiers of rank, location, and identity fall away.
In practice, review works quite differently. The specifics of how review works are strikingly inconsistent. I have learned about peer review as an editor and I have learned about peer review as an author. I have served on the editorial board of Africa Today, currently am part of the editorial collective at the Radical History Review, on the editorial board of the blog Africa is a Country, and on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of African History. One thing I have learned is that every journal or publication functions differently – there are different approaches to screening articles (some publications desk reject, others do not), to peer review, and to managing review reports.At some places, editors serve as one of the reviewers and at others they only do first round cuts and summarize reviews for authors. We could all do with more transparency about how review works at different journals. At the RHR, for example, all pieces are reviewed by one editorial collective member and by, at least, one scholar from outside.
I have learned a few things about peer review by having my own work (articles and two book manuscripts reviewed). Many people treat peer review as an opportunity to show you how smart they are and to impose their own ideas about style, argumentation, and sources. We are all familiar with the unfortunately common “here’s how I would write this.” Reviewers often forget that research and writing are not a hard science but a series of precendents about practice. That said, journals have commitments and standards of style, and peer reviewers help create consistency across time.
We could do with more empathy. Editors should remind reviewers that their job is to take the text, find the author’s argument, and offer suggestions for how to make it clearer and more fierce. That is peer review that helps an author, even when delivering criticism. The trouble, perhaps, is that there is not enough “peer” in the review. Reviewers are treated as experts, as gatekeepers, as people who know. And editing is a big job that is poorly compensated, when it is compensated at all.
The question of poor compensation, and of overwork, points to problems with the political economy of the university. The Uberfication of the University, the title of Gary Hall’s short book and a term I use here, means that, at the moment, we are stretched across the gaps of a system in transition. In the U.S. and in the U.K, where Hall is, revenue production and employability have become keywords in university life. Hall suggests we are moving to a system where university professors will have to be micro-entrepreneurs, like Uber drivers and Airbnb room renters. Research will be an excess expense for institutions. At the moment, we are experiencing a ramping up of labor, while salaries stagnate (at my own institution, raises, when we get them, are consistently well below changes in cost-of-living), staff are centralized and mobile, and the ranks of contingent labor are growing. Peer reviewers and editors have less time to do the framing work and the making connections instead of just leveling criticism that good editing requires. Editing is often done poorly or not at all. Peer reviewers are checking off boxes on their to-do lists and not engaging work on its own terms. New, challenging work might be the greatest casualty.
Editors need to step up and be proactive. They need to vet peer reviews before sending them on. They need to seek out work written by a diversity of scholars at diverse institutions and to find peer reviewers who are careful and thoughtful. I recently co-edited, with fellow RHR editorial collective member Sandhya Shukla and guest editors Pamila Gupta and Christopher J. Lee, Radical History Review issue 131 The Global South. In crafting the call for papers, in vetting abstracts, in inviting full article manuscripts, and in choosing peer reviewers, we thought carefully about questions of representation – scholars from the Global South, scholars in the Global South, and scholars writing about the Global South. We thought about institutional and geographic location and about rank and coverage. We tried hard not to replicate what is out there. We dealt with some biting peer reviews (though many were incredibly generous) and we handled one very angry, entitled author whose work we had decided not to include in the issue. We scrambled when a big-name scholar couldn’t deliver the promised text. In our final roster, we asked authors to edit, to re-write, to make bigger arguments.
By seeking out work from scholars in and from the Global South, we wound up with a diverse set of authors and a diverse set of articles. The TOC shows a new angle on thinking about the Global South from different angles – as early as World War I, from medical science, and via blackness in the Pacific, among other things. While we sought out a diversity of reviewers as well, we could have done more, though, to find reviewers based in and from the Global South.
The greatest challenge of peer review is the challenge to our time as laborers. We do more and more for less and less. The challenge is the way new forms of capitalism are actively and quickly restructuring the university.
Marissa Moorman is an Associate Professor of African History and of Cinema and Media Studies at Indiana University. She is the author of Intonations: a Social History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola, 1945-Recent Times (Ohio University Press, 2008) and Powerful Frequencies: Radio, State Power, and the Cold War in Angola, 1933-2002, forthcoming in July 2019. Moorman has published on music, media, fashion, film, radio, and urban space. She is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country, the blog that is not about Bono, famine or Obama, where she is also a regular contributor.