Peer Review and The Production of Sanctimony: A Denunciation

By Elizabeth Cullen Dunn

Emergent Conversation 16

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

I vividly remember the first time I was asked to peer review for a journal. I was a first year assistant professor, still excited that I’d made it onto the tenure track. I felt that I had hit the big time. Being asked to peer review only underscored that feeling: they wanted my opinion, and I was full of strong opinions.

The article I was asked to review was, to put it charitably, mediocre. How eagerly I slashed into it! With what passion I argued with its premises! Even now, I can feel the delightful thrill of indignation, the joy of outrage, and the deep pleasure at being right. I made sure to emphasize my incredible rightness with hyperbole and light snark, just so the editors would see how clever I was. I genuinely believed that the author would benefit from my stern dressing-down, would see the error of his or her ways, and that academia would be saved from another wrong argument.

Of course, now, I’m deeply ashamed that I ever reviewed like that. Having my own manuscripts torn to shreds by the proverbial Reviewer Two has generated a lot more empathy. But remembering the pleasures of savage peer review reminds me that bad peer review is never about the author of the manuscript under review. Instead, it’s about the reviewer: his or her insecurities, desires for respect and status, and above all, a very deep need to feel like a good person. Bad peer reviews are almost always based on sanctimony—and there is no joy like not only being right but also being good.

Anthropology, which has long based itself on denunciation as a mode of exposition, is particularly prone to this problem. We very often write in a moralizing mode, pointing out the historic wrongs of colonialism, capitalism, racism and more. We often seek to trace these moral wrongs into the present by identifying bad actors and dangerous ideas and sitting in judgement of them. The flip side of denouncing wrongs is the implication that the author, by virtue of being able to see evil, must necessarily be good. Moral rectitude is often the stock in trade of anthropologists. I’m guilty of this myself: I write in high dudgeon, pointing out the flaws of institutions and the people who inhabit them, without necessarily pointing out alternatives. Assholery, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, pervades the discipline, and peer review is not exempt. Sanctimony is an unfortunate part of that problem: it makes writing in the denunciatory mode relentlessly self-referential, even when it isn’t explicitly so, by seeking to portray the denouncer as either more intelligent or more morally pure or both. Vicious peer reviews, then, are about the production of the reviewer as superior.

If self-referentiality and sanctimony are at the heart of bad peer review—and by this I don’t mean rigorous engagement with argument, but rather deliberately destructive, mean, and hurtful language—what’s the alternative? I think that centering the writer of the manuscript must be at the heart of good peer review. Considering the author’s feelings are, obviously part of that: I always tell myself that negative remarks have to be softened by 50 percent, and positive ones intensified by 100 percent, because authors seem to amplify negative remarks in their own minds and dismiss the positive ones. You want to give people positive words to hold onto and repeat to themselves as they confront the critique, or they won’t be able to get up the courage to act on criticism. Making the author the center of attention also has the happy effect of submerging the reviewer: the intelligence or goodness of the reviewer are no longer what’s being produced when the focus is squarely on the argument of the manuscript.

But good peer review isn’t just about kindness (after all, isn’t the production of “kindness” also a form of sanctimony?). Instead, I focus hard on making actionable suggestions. Editors expect authors to respond to peer reviews by changing the manuscript. It’s therefore not helpful to hear “this is terrible” without being presented an alternative pathway. Phrases like “You might consider” and “have you thought about” push me, as a reviewer, to come up with actionable suggestions while moderating my tone substantially. Likewise, offering suggestions of literature to consider with descriptions of the main ideas you think need to be incorporated into the paper, offering suggestions of how to restructure an argument by briefly re-outlining it for the author, and especially finding points where the author can amplify, elaborate, or emphasize significant points are all suggestions authors can act on quickly and efficiently, using the review as a punchlist of what to do.

Authors may accept your suggestions or not. Most editors think rejecting a suggestion is a perfectly valid response to a review, as long as the author explains why. But at least with actionable suggestions, they will have an emotionally neutral list of ideas to work through in an orderly fashion, rather than an amorphous blob of negative affect and a smug reviewer to blame for it. Continually thinking about what an author can do to improve the work, then, is the antidote to sanctimony. This, in practical terms is “thinking with” an author, as Čarna Brković suggests: not only engaging with the author’s ideas, but also helping the author navigate the review process by structuring the way they can respond to the review.

Elizabeth Cullen Dunn is Director of the Center for Refugee Studies at Indiana University. She has served on the editorial boards of Cultural Anthropology and American Ethnologist, and completes more than 40 peer reviews of articles, book manuscripts, and grant applications a year

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