How to Complain Against Unfair Peer Review?

By Erol Saglam

Emergent Conversation 16

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

Once viewed as one of the pillars of scientific rigor and integrity, the intricacies of the peer review process are now part of a wider discussion in today’s academia. Various scholars have complained about the way the reviewers (now infamously marked as “Reviewer 2”) dismissed their work unfairly and how, despite the often-unsubstantiated nature of such dismissals, editorial processes went ahead as if they were in accordance with idealized virtues of impartiality, scientific integrity, and (mutual) empowerment. Such complaints not only expose long-debated inequalities at the intersections of class, race, ethnicity, and gender but also reveal how (seemingly) trivial matters, such as the name of the author (whether a western/white sounding one or one apparently hailing from the margins), affiliation (whether with a “reputable” institution or one in the Global South), or linguistic proficiency (such as the author’s ability to employ assertive formulations and/or lofty grammatical structures correctly) exert considerable influence on the peer review process. The process, we have come to learn, is far from perfect and incorporates multiple axes of discrimination, exclusion, and inequality—all despite its presumed “blindness.” One can also add personal grievances into such equations, no doubt, but my objective throughout this short commentary is to first and foremost identify the structural factors affecting actors from relatively unprivileged positions and, drawing on this framing, to come up with suggestions for a path forward. I would argue how the unfairness of peer review is underpinned by our own complicity in denigrating complaints as the author’s inability to cope with criticism and then suggest how our ethical duty to care for one another requires us to treat complaint more ethically and relationally.

I must begin with the fact that I have been rather lucky to have encountered mostly engaging and (sometimes harsh but) helpful critiques across my relatively brief and ongoing publication history—at least until this very year, as I discuss below. A couple of years back I received a rejection letter from one of the most prestigious anthropology journals that was brutally honest but also kindly open, generously engaging, and eager to help me improve both my writing style and the way I structured my key propositions. Even though all three reviewers had firmly agreed on rejection, their comments were both compassionately lucid in their diagnoses of my failures and suggested feasible pathways to work on these shortcomings. While disappointed in the final decision of rejection—as eloquently and kindly communicated by the journal editor—I was still satisfied and encouraged with the whole experience because all four people honestly engaged with my arguments—regardless of the poor state of their formulation, I now realize—and they also chose to employ gentle language to convey a simple “no.”

And yet, I am also aware of numerous mishaps befalling many first-generation, early career researchers, I have witnessed firsthand how unjustified and unhelpful criticism inevitably demoralizes young scholars who precariously try to find their way in the ruthless publish or perish culture. Witnessing what such uncompassionate exclusions did to them, I attempted to console my friends who received these disparaging reviews. My suggestions, I now realize, demanded they emotionally disinvest from their work, which had been gutted in their review encounters. Anonymity, it seems, provides the best excuse to be ruthless in decimating not only the argumentative quality of the text at hand but also the very capacity of the author to propose an analytic framing. In the face of what my friends perceived as personalized denigrations, my suggestion was to keep marching on and to incorporate the criticism—regardless of the unfairness permeating such reviews. Fighting back to demand a more compassionate reading, I felt then, was futile.

My positive experience with the review process, however, came across its first hurdle this year, and I now regret advising colleagues to simply “soldier on.” One of my articles, derived from an ethnographic dataset that I have been working with throughout the last decade, was reviewed by two scholars. One of them was supportive overall and suggested some feasible revisions, but the other review was outright unfair—at least in my opinion. The reviewer resolutely dismissed my core arguments, labeled them as “false,” and accused me of “misunderstanding” the socialities that we both studied only a couple of years apart. I lucidly remember being possessed by fury, not simply because he—I had correctly predicted the identity of the reviewer since not many people had worked on the same area—did not even try to read the paper with an open mind to detect and diagnose where its premises worked and where they fell short. I was furious also because, as far as I could sense from the brief text, throughout his brief review, he simultaneously negated both my arguments and my very ability to speak on a theme that I had worked on for years.

Striving to defend the integrity of my research in the face of what I thought to be an unjustified attack, I wrote a long rebuttal, explaining the contours of my research project, my argumentative framework, my limits as well as my strengths, and finally why the review did not meet ethical and professional standards. Before writing the rebuttal, I sought advice from friends and mentors, who supported me in ways that not only helped reassure me of my research’s scientific quality but also endowed me with strategies to cope with the affective ramifications of this complaint. Like many others, I had to expend considerable time and energy for the sake of correcting the errors of someone else. This extra pedagogical work (often falling upon “othered” scholars) required a laborious and lengthy detour, but it paid off. The editors agreed with me and the “unfair” reviewer was removed.

The reason I recount my experiences with the peer review process, from my (what I now realize to be a misguided) advice to my unfairly treated friends to my outright challenge of the “unfair” review, is not to instantiate myself too as an un-privileged early career scholar (Mehta 2019) who had to “complain,” as Sara Ahmed (2022) puts it, “to create an almost/nest in a hostile environment.” I recount this spectrum of orientations, ranging from my suggesting that friends “not take it personally and march on” to my immediately taking it personally and mobilizing (my network) to complain, to identify multiple modalities of inequality and exclusion for which I am also responsible. Writing this piece, which I had originally intended to follow a well-worn path and criticize the power dynamics that marginalize younger scholars from the Global South with non-white sounding names, made me reflect on the way I myself contributed to and inevitably suffered from the intricacies of review process across three different but interrelated domains.

Firstly, the stated objectives of peer-review as a scholarly conduct should be reconsidered to make the process more innovative, fair, and inclusive. An ethic of care is central to this improvement. The process we all contribute to with our unpaid labor should, no doubt, still aspire to be impartial, valid, and productive, but, should also involve “care and mutual support,” as a recent AllegraLab (2022) editorial underlines. Especially in anthropology, I must emphasize, researchers not only cope with the disciplinary requirements of lengthy and emotionally-challenging research engagements but also with an ever-accelerating publication marathon. The insistence on a “textual social distancing in which we lose track of the people who poured their heart (and work and time and knowledge and passion) into a draft paper,” as the same editorial states, does not necessarily guarantee an impartial assessment and, thanks to this presumed anonymity, may very well enable disparaging, unkind, uncaring, and unhelpful readings. The review, as I keep on reminding myself in my review work too, must focus on helping the author and the text to strengthen their tenets rather than simply diagnosing what did not and/or would not work. Attending to this ethical duty to care for others and their work, reviewers should pursue a compassionate and open-minded path to engage with the work at hand. “Thinking with” the reviewed piece, I must underscore, strives to detect the objectives of the text/author and help them reach these objectives, not to stop them. Thinking with, however, does not necessarily mean the lowering of scientific standards expected of scholarly publications—especially when the very integrity of science and truth per se are at stake. Major revision and rejection, no doubt, are still possible results of any such engagements, and yet they must be formulated in ways that encourage improvement. Editors, in this sense, should be vigilant to ensure this duty to care is upheld across reviews.

My second point pertains to the strategies to be pursued in the event of “unfair” reviews. These strategies are twofold: (i) the laborious task of writing a rebuttal justifying your choices and proving to the editors that the review is actually unfair in its handling of the matter at hand and (ii) the management of an unfair review’s emotional reverberations. The arduousness of the first aspect is evident, since it requires walking a fine line. A rebuttal is expected to be so many things at once: acknowledging and yet disagreeing, diplomatic and yet firm, emotional and yet “objective.” Writing counter-arguments, as we all know, takes precious time and energy from authors and burdens them with what we often conceive to be the responsibilities of reviewers and editors: providing a comprehensive overview of the text and helping authors strengthen it.

In addition, challenging an unfair review, I must underline, does not only consist of scrupulous writing but also requires emotional integrity. This emotional dynamic involves feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, fatigue, and anger as well as our anxieties around what others may think of us when we challenge the academic verdict on our work. Pushing back against abuse, exclusion, mistreatment, or unfair conduct may very well be “heard as complaining, as being negative as well as saying something negative” as Sara Ahmed (2022) observes. I would add that it may also be read as one’s inability to handle critique or hypersensitivity. Complaining, in this sense, often undermines the very message conveyed. “To be heard as complaining” Sara Ahmed continues, “is not to be heard”. The twofold effects generated by this exclusionary practice, that is both being unfairly treated and then dismissed as a complaining subject, mean pushing back grows costlier. Acquiescing to the review, we perceive, emerges as the reasonable choice so as to move forward in our careers and not to antagonize more senior, well-connected scholars. Overcoming these hurdles is a tough process, but I would argue that one must still complain since, in the words of Ahmed again, “a fight can be how we acquire wisdom.” Even when we consider it futile, I am now convinced of the affective and ethical efficacy and necessity of pushing back.

The final point I would make pertains to our own positions within this interplay. Reflecting on my own role in the perpetuation of peer review’s mishaps, I could not help but ask:  How did my ability to push back compare with my previous suggestions that others must somehow comply with and accommodate unfair reviews? Why had I not adhered to my own suggestions? And how did I derive that very ability to complain and successfully stand my ground? Writing these lines, I came to recognize how I failed to adhere to my own ethical commitment to care for my friends and colleagues. I realize more and more that review process is not simply a dialogical relation between reviewer(s) and the author(s) but also incorporates many others, such as friends, family, and colleagues. My misguided suggestions to my friends (“do not take it personally” or “work with them”), I now realize, were not only contrary to my commitment to solidarity and inclusion but also a disservice to a much more fundamental aspect of friendship. Failing to recognize the affective reverberations of such encounters, I undermined my friends’ ability to complain, to reclaim their usurped space, to realize their ethical and professional potential, and to “acquire wisdom” through their fight—regardless of how laborious and emotionally-challenging that would be. In the words of Ahmed (2022) again, complaining against such wrongdoings is to unleash “this history of how we had to fight for room; and how by taking up that fight, we became each other’s resources.” Complaining, in this sense, is predicated upon a relationality whose resources are mobilized to counter unfair conduct. From the standpoint of the present, I see that I withheld solidarity from my friends, instead offering subjugation disguised as “consolation”.

In conclusion, I should emphasize how all aspects of anthropological writing is a collective endeavor. Our field work and the subsequent writing-up always involve multiple actors, scholars and interlocutors alike. The publication process, similarly, incorporates various others who help us sharpen arguments, make connections lucid, and discussions coherent. Writing and reviewing, in this sense, are always already dialogic processes that require one to contemplate the others’ point of view. Those social underpinnings of writing inevitably generate dissensus, which is and will always be a part of scholarly discussions, no doubt. How we—as authors, reviewers or friends—fashion that dissensus into productive scholarship, however, is an altogether different task we should all be aware of.

Erol Saglam is a social anthropologist working on reconfigurations of statecraft, its relation to the law, and the changing parameters of political subjectivity at the intersections of conspiracy theories, societal violence, and bureaucratic operations. Following his undergraduate and graduate studies at Bogazici University, Istanbul, Saglam earned his Ph.D. degree in 2017 from Birkbeck, University of London with his anthropological research on nationalist communities of northeast Turkey. He is a Rosa-Luxemburg Postdoctoral Fellow with, BGSMCS, Freie Universität Berlin, a Visiting Scholar with the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, University of Cambridge, and a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Istanbul Medeniyet University, Istanbul.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sarah. 2022. “Complaint as a Queer Method.” Feministkilljoys. March 24, 2022. Last accessed May 1, 2022.  https://feministkilljoys.com/2022/03/24/complaint-as-a-queer-methodb/.

AllegraLaboratory.net. 2022. “Who Cares? Peer-Review at Allegra.” AllegraLaboratory. Feb 22, 2022. Last accessed May 1, 2022. https://allegralaboratory.net/who-cares-peer-review-at-allegra/.

Mehta, Akanksha. 2019. “Teaching Gender, Race, Sexuality: Reflections on Feminist Pedagogy.” Kohl: A Journal for Body and Gender Research 5(1): 23-30.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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