Peer Review as Intellectual Accompaniment

Emergent Conversation 16

Edited by Čarna Brković and Jennifer Curtis

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A couple of climbers reaching the top of a mountain over a sea of clouds at dawn. Buena Vista Images / Getty Images.

Imagine a person writing a peer review. Perhaps you will picture a skeptical individual crushing scholarship just because they can. This is at least the popular image that circulates in social media groups such as “Reviewer 2 must be stopped!”: an angry person who inflicts pain because they do not (want to) understand an author’s argumentation. The sense of being misunderstood and wronged by a peer reviewer seems to be almost universally shared in all corners of academia. Even when acknowledging that the paper improved thanks to the peer reviewers, we can “remain somewhat bewildered by some of their comments” (Smith 2012, 61).

A different picture might emerge when we imagine a relationship between a supervisor and their doctoral student. These are people “linked by an umbilical cord,” I was told once by a scholar from the U.K. German language echoes the same idea: a PhD supervisor is called a “doctoral father” (Doktorvater) or a “doctoral mother” (Doktormutter), expressing an intellectual bond in the idiom of family intimacy. Just like any kinship relation, PhD supervision can go awry. But it is, in principle, supposed to be dialogical and nurturing, critical, safe for differences, future-oriented, enabling growth and maturation.

There is something structural here in how the relationship between thinking, hierarchy, and temporality is often imagined in the “Global North.” Many of us have been trained to express respect for our peers by thinking “against them”—by trying to poke holes in their arguments. This—let us call it a “courtroom” model of an intellectual exchange—can be stimulating. Learning how to separate an attack on the argument from an attack on the person and how to immerse yourself in the former can bring intellectual joy and also advance our arguments.

Yet “thinking against” is not the only way to pursue an intellectual exchange in academia. In the case of peer review for journal articles, it might not be the most helpful one either. When a peer reviewer engages in “thinking against,” this does not seem to bring intellectual pleasure. More often it seems to generate a sense of being wronged by the review. This is perhaps because “thinking against” is predicated upon an assumption of egalitarianism within a scientific community, while peer review is an exchange in which some participants have the power over others to decide whether to let their argument be published, affecting, even limiting, career trajectories and the visibility and accessibility of different voices and knowledges. For “thinking against” to bring intellectual enjoyment, the participants in an exchange should be equals in some fundamental sense; it should be possible to safely disregard socio-economic differences between them, including how experiences of sexism, racism, classism, coloniality, and precarity have shaped their lives and thinking. In practice, this is not the case.

The pandemic increased stress on authors, peer reviewers, and journal editors, pushing many of us to face the gap between how we usually imagine intellectual exchange in academia and the shifting demands of the world we live in. Conversations on the politics and practices of peer review and journal editing mushroomed over the last few weeks, deliberating on various kinds of approaches to creating sustainable change in the peer review system. The need to think about how to reorganize peer review so that it presents an opportunity for “thinking with” in the unequal, hierarchically organized world we live in is precisely at the focus of this PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation.

“Thinking With” When Peer Reviewing:  Introduction to the PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation on Peer Review

Čarna Brković


A Book Publisher’s View on Peer Review

Fred Appel



Shifting Parameters, Adjusted Skills: Peer Reviewing When Funding Is at Stake

Regina F. Bendix 



From ArXiv to Bakhtin, Bringing Dialogue to Peer Review

Mario Biagioli



Disjointed Dialogues: The Perverse Practices of Peer Reviewing

John Clarke



Dispirited Away: The Peer Review Process

Dada Docot



Peer Review and The Production of Sanctimony: A Denunciation

Elizabeth Cullen Dunn



For Accountability

Saida Hodžić




Reviewer 2 Has Raised Concerns: Peer Review and Editing in the Academy

Dolly Kikon



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

Madeleine Reeves


How to Complain Against Unfair Peer Review?

Erol Saglam



From Gatekeepers to Caretakers. The Often-Overlooked Role of Editors’ Care Work in Peer-Reviewed Publishing

Marie Sandberg

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