By Saida Hodžić
This essay is part of the series PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation on Peer Review as Intellectual Accompaniment
This is not an essay about bad reviewers.
The infamous “Reviewer 2” has become the butt of jokes, and understandably so. Jokes are an outlet, and we have plenty to let out. Many of us have had to contend with at least borderline unethical, hypocritical, or plain unhelpful reviews. Some of us have written them, though there are fewer jokes about that. Some of us also regularly receive diminishing, abusive, xenophobic, racist, and sexist reviews, the damage of which may fly under the radar of people who are not usual targets. Anyone can be subject to Reviewer 2-style unethical gatekeeping. But for people who regularly stand outside of gates, this type of review layers on and extends existing social and institutional hierarchies.
Reviewer 2 is a lightning rod that absorbs, diffuses, and distributes critiques of peer review. But as much as Reviewer 2 jokes make visible, they also obscure and tame. Reviewers are not the ones making decisions about manuscript revisions, acceptance, or rejection.
Reviewers suggest, but editors decide.
Editors choose what to do with manuscripts, how to adjudicate reviews, which ones to prioritize, and which to elide. Editors decide whether to consider the peer review process as an impartial, objective quality assurance or a deeply subjective, power-laden one. Editors make decisions that can make or break people’s careers and livelihoods, that can cost people their jobs and incomes. Editors also select editorial boards and reviewers, and these choices reflect to whom the journal considers itself accountable. Our cultural focus on Reviewer 2 is a function of displacement. We make fun of reviewers because we can’t even anonymously turn editors into jokes or laugh about them, much less question how power works in the peer review process.
Why do we treat editorship as sacrosanct and peer review as impartial? This essay is about power and difference in peer review, systemically unaccountable editorship, our tolerance of that system, and the pressing need to stop tolerating it.
It is not about bad individuals, but about a bad system that allows for a lack of responsibility and enables gatekeeping and abuse of power. We fail to question the effects of editorial sovereignty that holds itself above the law. We tolerate the fact that there is no law—there are neither written guidelines nor tacitly agreed upon norms about much of editorial work with authors and reviewers. In their stead is a steadfast idea of impartiality and willful ignorance of power.
I have experienced unethical, gate-closing conduct from reviewers only on a few occasions; in my history of publishing, productive reviews outweighed the unproductive, dismissive, and unethical ones. In contrast, I have frequently encountered excessive and illegitimate editorial intervention, marginalizing practices, and ethical breaches. (I have also enjoyed working with supportive and constructive editors of special issues, journals, and books.)
The editor is a particular kind of a sovereign. The editor has authority, but limited accountability and optional responsibility.
Editorial authority is announced loudly in the title: editor-in-chief. (Why we can’t come up with a non-militarized metaphor for authority mystifies me). Within the American Anthropological Association (AAA), editors’ accountability is limited to what we might call “shareholders,” namely the producing association. Editors give reports to the association and any interested members about the timeliness of publishing, increases or decreases in subscriptions, impact factors, and efforts to improve the quality of submissions and publications, engage wider publics, or promote open access. All of these are important.
But accountability to shareholders is not a substitute for accountability to specific authors and reviewers, and the broader body of potential authors and reviewers that we might call the discipline, or anthropology’s constitutive publics.
Because we lack systemic accountability, some editors seek and accept authority but abdicate ethical responsibility. Some hide behind reviewers, erasing their own power and agency in the name of the process/impartiality/objectivity. Common wisdom says that when the manuscript shines, there is less fodder for Reviewer 2, but this does not always work out that way. Some editors use Reviewer 2 as a front, while others want all reviewers to be satisfied before accepting the manuscript. In doing so, they position themselves as transcribers, rather than anthropologists. This also happens when reviews are presented as raw data: “Here are some quotes, you make sense of them;” or “Reviewer X has this list of concerns and they must all be addressed” (even if they are unjustified or unethical). Editors should act as anthropologists, not as transcribers. It is their job, and arguably their most important job, to determine the quality of the reviews, to make sense of them, and to pay careful attention to the fine line where reviews veer away from securing the quality of the publication and engage in unethical gatekeeping that couches epistemological and political disagreements as manuscript deficiencies.
Some editors abdicate responsibility by remaining silent when receiving and transmitting unacceptable reviews.
Editors can decide that a review is inappropriate and reject it, or that portions of the review are misguided and can be ignored; some do so. It is up to editors to communicate to reviewers and authors both when a review fails the minimal ethical and professional standards.
Editors need to clearly and directly communicate their views and actions on unethical and gatekeeping reviews, and should proactively work to open the gates.
The only egregiously unethical reviews I received responded to an autoethnographic manuscript. As Dada Docot’s essay (this issue) also suggests, this is not coincidental. Autoethnography makes us more vulnerable, especially when the author’s subjectivity as a non-normative anthropological subject is made plainly visible. Not all cultural anthropologists agree that autoethnography is a valid method; rather than excusing themselves from the review process, they write negative reviews and shut the gates. Others may be open to autoethnographic analysis but balk at it when it implicates them in uncomfortable ways, questioning how power works not only in the world but in anthropology as a discipline.
When editors are power blind, they understand peer review as an impartial quality assurance process and adjudication of required expertise. Peer review treats reviewers as trusted experts but manuscript authors as unproven aspirants. The systemic inequality in the distribution of expertise and authority requires us to reject ideas of impartiality and power blindness. To see through gatekeeping requires proactive, thoughtful, and responsible editorial presence (see also Tejani 2019). Otherwise we acquiesce to misconduct and thus enable it.
A Different Beginning
One can also receive perfectly productive and ethical reviews and face an unethical editor. Let’s consider this scenario: it is not the reviewers’, but the editors’ communication and conduct that is aggressive, irresponsible, and/or borderline or fully abusive. And/or ableist, racist, xenophobic, or sexist. What do you do then? To whom do you write? There is nobody. Rather, there is nobody with institutional power. Stunned into disbelief by a journal editor’s ethical misconduct, I tried to articulate my shock and helplessness to a senior colleague. “Where do I turn to when no one is accountable?,” I asked. “You’re right,” she said. “We have no system for addressing this particular problem. Some people get crushed and leave, never coming back.”
I looked up whether the AAA had an institutional mechanism for addressing editorial misconduct. Yes, there was an elected anthropologist on the AAA board dealing with ethical disputes (there is a committee now). But this person had no institutional power, and they were an Assistant Professor. This was not a promising route.
The editorial abuse of power, some blatant and egregious, is enabled by the culture of secrecy in which everything happens behind closed doors, gatekeeping is normalized, and editorial sovereignty is prioritized over accountability.
This year, I took off my “work in progress” articles from my CV. That I can set aside trying to publish autoethnographic work in anthropological journals is a function of privilege—I have job security through tenure—but is born out of necessity. Nobody should have to accommodate abusive, irresponsible, and power-blind peer review.
I write this in hope that it is possible to make us more accountable. There are many people already leading the way, in publishing and elsewhere.
As a reviewer for PoLAR under Jessica Winegar and Jessica Greenberg, I received a response from the editor that communicated and explained their decision on the manuscript and shared the compilation of all reviews on the basis of which they made that decision. That is an example of accountability.
I do not propose that we set ethical standards that are impossible to uphold or will never cause hurt. Being rejected or misunderstood hurts, catching a glimpse of the reviewer’s impatience or annoyance hurts. Not only do we live in the middle of a pandemic, many of us also feel the effects of perpetual wars and structural violence. These take a toll on authors, reviewers, and editors. But there is a difference between the pain of being misunderstood or rejected and the pain of being kept outside the gates or let in at the price of lost dignity, at the mercy of an unaccountable or willfully ignorant sovereign.
Scholars across the disciplines are questioning the ethics of peer review in the context of a broader critique of academic publishing: the uncompensated labor of authors, reviewers, and editors in the exploitative for-profit publishing industry; the lack of commensurability between publishing and job security; the futility of publishing that fails to reach audiences.
Many anthropologists are also discussing how to foster greater institutional accountability to groups and communities we work with, both in fieldwork and in our own institutions. We do not talk enough about minimal ethical and professional standards for peer review and editorial decision making. We need to debate and refine them, agree on them. We are all responsible for this work.
Yet, it puzzles me why editors are not leading the way to institutionalize guidelines for ideal, acceptable, and non-acceptable reviews and editorial decision-making. Why don’t editors publicly share experiences of difficult editorial decisions or their reflections on ethical decision-making and journal accountability? Why don’t we all acknowledge how epistemological and political gatekeeping works and how it needs to be confronted? Editors could have these conversations with one another and with manuscript writers. When will we make this happen?
For junior scholars who want to publish in anthropology, I have this advice: ask who is the editor and find out how they work. When learning how to figure out which journals to submit to, I was told about fit (which may mean publishing in journals that you read and that foster conversations you want to contribute to) and institutional credibility (to get tenure, you need to publish in American Ethnologist and Cultural Anthropology, a friend told me, and I followed their advice).
I wish I had also been told two different things:
- Try smaller journals, journals published in countries where you conduct fieldwork, interdisciplinary journals, and journals in other disciplines. Not necessarily area studies journals—not all of us are “area” people and many are tired of “being area-studied” and centering “the United States as the place to which information flows” (Macharia 2016: 187).
- When publishing in anthropology, ask: who is the editor? Do you know someone similarly positioned to you who has published with them? What was their experience? The positioning I highlight here matters. Junior faculty, women, people of color, ESL speakers, anthropologists writing from autoethnographic perspectives that acknowledge their gender, sexuality, ability, class, racialization, and anyone embodying the interstices of these categories, are read differently, both by reviewers and by editors.
These are imperfect, partial solutions. The 3-year timeline for many editorships makes this investigative work difficult—by the time somebody has built up a reputation, they are on their way out.
Collectively, we need to do more than this. We need to exercise power responsibly and foster accountability.
Saida Hodžić is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University.
Challenging institutional violence is only possible with the right accomplices. Thank you for your encouragement, feedback, and thinking together: Aida Hozić, Čarna Brković, Dada Docot, and Deniz Yonucu. Thank you, Jennifer Curtis and Caroline Parker, for your help with my prose. The essay structure is an intertextual nod to Mitzi Uehara Carter’s “Nappy Routes and Tangled Tales: Critical Ethnography in a Militarised Okinawa” (In Under Occupation: Resistance and Struggle in a Militarised Asia-Pacific, edited by Peter Simpson, Daniel Broudy and Makoto Arakaki. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).
Macharia, Keguro. 2016. “On Being Area Studied: A Litany of Complaint.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 22(2): 183-190.
Tejani, Sheba. 2019. “What’s Feminist about Feminist Economics?” Journal of Economic Methodology 26 (2): 99-117.