Falling into the Gaps, Together: On Peer Review as Intellectual Accompaniment

 By Madeleine Reeves

Emergent Conversation 16

This essay is part of the series PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation on Peer Review as Intellectual Accompaniment

In 2008, just as I was finishing my PhD, I came across an editorial by Stuart Elden, a political geographer who at the time was the editor of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. The editorial, on what he called the “exchange economy of peer review” was part plea, part rebuke (Elden 2008). The plea was for scholars to commit to reviewing more manuscripts, in Society and Space and generally.  Elden pointed out that each manuscript required three reviews to inform an editorial decision, which in turn often meant approaching eight or more prospective reviewers over the course of several months. The rebuke was directed at authors who, having published or submitted a paper under review in the journal, declined invitations to reciprocate by reviewing for the journal in turn. Elden’s solution was formalize the commitment to review as part of the process of manuscript submission: to render visible and explicit the transactions on which the review system depends. In Elden’s model, each author should undertake to review three times as many papers as they might submit in a given year: this was the transaction implicit in the “exchange economy” of peer review.

I was reminded of Elden’s editorial when, several years later, I came to serve as the editor of a large, inter-disciplinary Area Studies journal. In that role, one that consisted of a lot of unglamorous requests for peer review and chasing of readers to deliver their reports, I encountered many of the same challenges that Elden had described a decade earlier. Among our virtual Rolodex of area specialists we had many dedicated peer-reviewers who invested huge care in crafting thoughtful, constructive, detailed, and timely reviews of submitted manuscripts. We had some—including published authors in the journal—who declined ever to review or who agreed to review but then never delivered. And we had others who delivered reviews that were so short, irrelevant, or snarky as to be at best unhelpful and at worst utterly crushing to the author.

Elden’s transactional model of peer review is useful for thinking about the formal dimensions of the labor involved in peer review, one that it is worth restating when we feel overburdened with review requests. At conferences or when giving presentations about the black box of journal publishing to graduate audiences I often refer back to Elden’s formula as a useful rule of thumb: If I plan to submit or resubmit, say, 3 journal articles in a given year, I should, as a minimum, be undertaking to review 9 articles, or on average one every six weeks.

Beyond an “Exchange Economy” of Academic Labor

Useful as this formula is, however, Elden’s argument also reproduces a fundamental fallacy of academic labor. This fallacy holds that the “exchange economy” is a straightforward transaction between equally positioned parties:  I review your article, you review hers, she reviews mine, and science moves forward. That symmetry breaks down when we consider the arc of any academic career and the structural inequities and pressures of academic life for differently positioned scholars. There are clearly phases when we publish more and review less, others where the kinds of review work that we undertake expands to incorporate many more things than journal articles, and others where the demands of committee work or care work outside the academy mean that we cannot take on just one more thing into an already saturated workday.

The exchange economy model also ignores the fact that some people in this system have a lot more power than others to act as institutional or disciplinary gatekeepers. In the U.K. system of doctoral examination, for instance, two peer reviewers—the internal and external examiners—can decide the fate of a PhD candidate’s future with no recourse to appeal on substantive grounds.  In many European systems of doctoral examination, the external examiner is called an “opponent,” a term that emphasizes a model of knowledge production in which truth is assumed to emerge through contestation and rebuke (see also Brković, this issue). Not all partners in this exchange are equal.

Recognizing these inequalities reveals a more fundamental issue with the exchange economy model of peer review that I found myself reflecting on as editor, reviewer, and author, one which might also explain both its fragility and its experiential inadequacy: the fact that peer review, for author and reader alike, is saturated with unspoken hierarchies, structural insecurities, colonial privileges, and messy feelings. If we treat the review process merely as a transactional relation or an exchange economy, it misses the fact that economies are embedded, transactions aren’t free, and that academic “exchange” conceals multiple inequities of position, opportunity and voice.

Let me expand on this point a little. Peer reviewing is rarely—and certainly not in socio-cultural anthropology—an objective process of verification of results. It is an affective, relational labor of navigating obligations (to editors, authors, and the scholarly community), negotiating gaps (in data, epistemology, and approach) and assessing “contribution” to an always-already skewed scholarly conversation. Assessments of quality, validity and originality—the metrics on which reviewers are often required to provide tick-box assessments of article—are shaped by a host of embedded assumptions about which topics or approaches, which theories and even which places happen to be “current” or “important” at a given historical conjuncture (see also Cabot 2019). As Jules Weiss (2018) demonstrated in a brilliant analysis of citation metrics in the journal, HAU, assessments of “currency” and “originality” are inseparable from colonial, class, and gender privilege. Academic canons, Weiss notes, “are produced and reproduced through citation.” It is through attribution and citation that we mark our place within a scholarly conversation and that we pay homage to the discipline’s elders.

One consequence of this, Weiss shows, is that when that circle of referencing and review is too tight, it becomes less conversation than cabal, so that “The path that academic anthropology is currently taking is one that keeps pushing too many people to the sides.” If journal editors disproportionately invite reviewers from within their own scholarly conversation, university network, or among those already highly cited in a given journal, the conversation tends towards closure rather than openness. This is not good for a field that is committed to interrogating epistemic common sense. But it can also be deeply destructive to the individuals excluded from conversation through a snide or dismissive review. This is true in all fields to some degree.  But in socio-cultural anthropology, where our arguments rest upon ethnographic authority, where our gendered, raced body is our primary research tool, and where we are often pushed by editors and mentors to articulate bold theoretical claims from limited ethnographic data, the scope for offense or resentment is considerable. More than in most other fields, I think, critique of an argument can feel like an ad hominem attack.

Peer Review as Intellectual Accompaniment

How, then, might we rethink peer review beyond both the juridical model of attack and defense that underpins many moments of scholarly verification, and the transactional model outlined by Elden (2008)?

I want to propose that we approach peer review in anthropology as an affective practice of care—and more specifically, as a form of accompaniment: as a practice of walking or playing or thinking with an author as they navigate the space between fieldwork and theory. Such an approach starts from the acknowledgement that the production of anthropological knowledge is itself a form of traversing gaps—between ethnographic data and written text; between experience and reflection; between observation and theory; between what has been said before and what one is trying to say anew. It also acknowledges that peer review is affectively charged, shot through with hierarchies of privilege and inequities of voice that we can consciously challenge in how we undertake our reviews.

Peer review in the “accompaniment” model is less a process of pointing out the gaps (picking holes, pointing fingers), and more a process of thinking with what the gaps themselves reveal about our collective scholarly blind-spots. It is a practice of care, not in the sense that we shy away from or deliberately mute our critique, but in the sense that it proceeds from and is motivated by a concern to “stay with” an argument and push at its edges rather than ride against it. Care in this sense is a form of attention: a “temporal practice of staying alongside others and ideas” in Baraitser’s (2017, 14) terms, or a “small theoretical gesture” in Povinelli’s (2011, 160).

If this all feels a little abstract, let me try to elaborate a little on what I mean by this with reference to a series of observations in a slightly different domain: that of anthropological writing itself. In her reflections on what she calls “outside desk-work,” Marilyn Strathern (2008) describes the simultaneous dread and excitement that continues to accompany the process of committing pen to paper, still today, fifty years after her first published article. Her account of the affective force of traversing that gap is worth quoting at length:

I write all the time, but what marks off new tasks from old (or going over old ground) is finding myself plunged into something close to despair. I lose confidence, my self-esteem plummets; it is clear that everyone has already said things better, and that it was quite absurd to take on a task that now seems insuperable (Strathern 2015, 244).

The “despair” Strathern describes derives from the sense of having to overcome or leap over gaps that often feel unfathomable: the gap between data and text, or, as she puts it, “that awful one between everything one has already written and a new venture, or between the magnitude of the field of enquiry, the heap on the plate, and the bit one wants to bite off for now” (2015, 244).  I find this image helpful (and reassuring too, for sure: if Strathern struggles with writing through the gaps, there is hope for the rest of us.) What interests me here, though, here is the link Strathern makes between this sense of dread at the magnitude of the gap(s) to be overcome and the creative process itself. Her point is not that the gap has to be bypassed or overcome: it really has to be fallen into and climbed out of. Indeed, the writing often is the act of “climbing out of the crevasse” (245).

Three things strike me from this formulation. The first is the acknowledgement that writing is affectively charged: it is the “mood”—often quite a dark mood—that signals the moment of leaping into the dark. The second is the recognition that such gaps mark the threshold of innovation: without embracing the gaps as integral to the creative process, we will never take the leap of trying to say something new. The third—and of most relevance to our interest here in peer review—concerns the suggestion that to support writers who might be experiencing such a “gap” and its associated moods, what is needed is not commiseration or empty praise, but a willingness to stay with the author as they try to write their way out of the abyss.  “What I from my own moods can tell [my students] about what may be happening,” Strathern continues, “is that the gap opening up between what needs doing and the capacity to do it can actually be a prerequisite to writing at all. Similar gaps can make people stumble at any point or in any corner of their lives; for the would-be writer they can also be the threshold of creativity” (245; my emphasis).

I like to think of exemplary peer review as one of approaching that gap with the author and surveying it together—perhaps even falling into it and climbing out of it, if the argument or ethnography resonates with things that the reader has been thinking about herself. That commitment doesn’t imply agreeing with the author or heaping a text with empty praise, any more than accompanying someone on a walk, in a jazz concert, or through a securitized checkpoint implies sharing their values, tastes, or worldview. Accompaniment implies freedom to disagree and to interpret differently; it acknowledges discomfort and disjuncture. But it does signal a form of “being with” (and, by extension, thinking and writing with) that is at variance with the duelling, courthouse model of peer assessment that is the standard in systems of double-blind peer review. It means taking seriously the gaps that authors navigate not as indices of failure, but as portals into the creative process itself.

Accompaniment as Praxis

 What would such an approach look like in practice?  There are three techniques that I think can anchor an approach to peer review as accompaniment. The first is to acknowledge that peer review often brings with it a host of messy feelings, precisely because writing itself is often accompanied by the kinds of doubt and dread that Strathern so evocatively captures.

For the person having their work scrutinized, the feelings elicited by the review process might include fear of judgement, frustration at being misunderstood by the proverbial “Reviewer 2,” annoyance that the review process itself is taking so long, hurt at being damned with faint praise, anger at rejection, fear or self-criticism at the consequences of that rejection—which in the journal publishing world can be cold, harsh, and consequential, with little recourse to appeal. For example, in the forthcoming Emergent Conversation on PoLAR Online, Fred Appel vividly describes some of those feelings as they are negotiated by author and editor in the process of manuscript review. I had my own quota of such messy feelings when I received the annotated copy of my doctoral dissertation back from one of my examiners to discover “BULLSHIT!” written in the margin of the text in red pen. I felt those words viscerally: for all the other comments that covered the examiner’s copy, it was that capitalized rebuke that left me with clammy hands whenever I caught sight of the manuscript.

For the reviewer, too, the process of reviewing can be saturated with affect, including guilt at keeping others waiting, resentment that someone else “got there first” with a neat argument or ethnographic insight, frustration at not being cited properly or at all, anger at having one’s argument turned into a straw man, or perhaps just aversion to another person’s scholarly approach or style of argumentation.

We can probably never entirely do away with such feelings. But we can acknowledge their force, and the ways that the “double blind” of peer review can expand the scope for words to wound.  One concrete way of holding them in check is to invoke a subjunctive: to write a peer review report as if the author were in the same room and would be read out to her, to critique as if reader and writer were literally face-to-face. For all the benefits of double-blind peer review as a mode of assessing scholarly work, one of its severe limitations is the way that it creates license for reviewers to hide behind their invisibility with comments that are lazy, irrelevant, or intentionally wounding. One reason why discussant comments at conference panels are often comparatively generative and rich is that the reviewer is aware of a public audience in which their responses, alongside the presenters’ papers, will be heard and judged by all present. We can imagine that audience in our writing and use it to temper how we convey our critique.

The second suggestion is to take seriously the task of “thinking with” by prefacing adjudicative comments with a précis of what and with whom the reviewer understands the author to be arguing. Some journal editors explicitly request this, and as an editor I found it a useful tool for gauging the extent to which a reader had sought to engage with an author’s argument on its own terms. Such an approach expands the space and opportunity for co-reflection. It also helps to avoid the pitfall of requesting so many substantive changes to a text that an argument becomes unwieldy, top-heavy, or without a clear narrative flow.

The third, I think, is to consider how, in our reviewing, we can expand and open up scholarly conversations by “punking our citations” in Weiss’s (2018) felicitous phrase. I’m reminded here of Zoe Todd’s (2019) assessment in the wake of the HAU scandal that what is needed in contemporary anthropology is not just an interrogation of the failings of HAU’s editorial process, but, more generally, “a radical commitment to co-thinking, co-constitution, collaboration, and building otherwise.” We can approach peer review—like citation—as an opportunity, and a gift: an opportunity to amplify the work of scholars outside the usual canon whose work may be relevant to what the author is trying to say; an occasion to think with an author in directions they might not yet have gone; an opportunity to identify hidden genealogies to anthropology’s own “common sense.”

Madeleine Reeves is Professor in the Anthropology of Migration at the University of Oxford and a former editor of Central Asian Survey. Her interests lie in the anthropology of the state, borders, mobility and reproduction, with particular reference to Russia and Central Asia.


Works Cited

Baraitser, Lisa. 2017. Enduring Time. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Cabot, Heath. 2019. “The Business of Anthropology and the European Refugee Regime.” American Ethnologist 46(3): 261-275.

Elden, Stuart. 2008. “The Exchange Economy of Peer Review.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26(6): 951-953.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2011. Economies of Abandonment. Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2008. “Outside Desk-Work: A Reflection from Marilyn Strathern.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21(1): 244-245.

Todd, Zoe. 2019. “I’m Too Tired to Read Your Journal. On Refusing HAU.” Anthrodendum, 1st July. Accessed May 7, 2022.  https://anthrodendum.org/2019/07/01/im-too-tired-to-read-your-work-on-refusing-hau-journal/.

Weiss, Jules. 2018. “Citation is a Gift: “Punking” Accounting in #HAUtalk.” Footnotes Blog. Accessed May 7, 2022.  https://footnotesblogcom.wordpress.com/2018/07/07/guest-post-citation-is-a-gift-punking-accounting-in-hautalk/.



About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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