By Dolly Kikon
This essay is part of the series PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation on Peer Review as Intellectual Accompaniment
When I was invited to reflect on my experience of peer review in the academy, I considered it an opportunity to open a space to share notes on the trauma caused by the process. This is especially important for early career researchers who are experiencing similar anxieties and self-doubts. Opening up about my experience does not mean I am not able to handle rejections. Currently, I am part of a research group trying to find a suitable journal that will accept our proposal and articles for a special issue. We have been rejected by two journals so far. We are keeping our fingers crossed after our colleagues—the editorial collective—submitted the proposal and abstracts to a third journal. As the author of three academic books, which were all published by university presses after rigorous multiple reviews (Kikon 2019, Kikon & Karlsson 2019, Kikon & McDuie-Ra 2021) I have decided not to turn away when fellow academics in the guise of anonymous reviewers humiliate and traumatize others. I am the author of numerous articles, essays, reports, and commentaries. I know my worth as a writer and thinker. As a peer reviewer and an editor of an international journal, I do turn down manuscripts. As most of us are aware, we use our judgment and journal or publisher guidelines to reject a manuscript or research proposal. Nevertheless, behind all the anonymous peer reviewing that takes place, there are human emotions, reasoning, and power at play.
Rejections hurt. Where there is hurt there are risks. When compounded by the pressure to publish and stand out as an expert, there are real dangers to self and others as well. As an academic in the Australian university system, the pressure to publish is immense. I was elated when my working paper was accepted to be part of an edited book after a workshop in April 2016. It was an ethnographic chapter from my doctoral thesis which would become my first academic book titled, Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Extraction and Militarization in Northeast India (2019). Many of us have stories of the dreaded “Reviewer 2.” But these are related to journals which are deemed more prestigious and valuable. Conversations about academic writing, argument, and clarity are important for academics.
I learned about academic writing and structure at the Stanford Writing Center. This center functions as a writing clinic for students to drop in and “fix” their drafts. I was an international student from India and had joined the doctoral program at the Department of Anthropology in 2006. Prior to that, I worked with human rights organizations documenting state violence in Northeast India. The last thing on my mind was focusing on the aesthetics of crafting sentences to describe torture and disappearances. Until I arrived in the United States as a doctoral student, I was unaware of writing centers. To my knowledge, except for elite private universities, most public institutions in India are unable to allocate funding for similar writing centers.
I am grateful to my writing tutors at Stanford University for their support. It was there that I worked on some of my early term papers, revised structures, and reflected on style. I completed my qualifying exam papers and successfully defended my doctoral proposal. After I graduated with a doctoral degree in 2013, I sent a few book proposals to university presses which were turned down. I was also trying to publish a few chapters from my doctoral thesis. In 2015, University of Washington Press picked up my manuscript and I began working with the series editors. It took me time to figure out structure, style, and analytical framework. Academic text and language are meant for the academia. It is exclusive and one cannot categorize it in any other way. Therefore, academics often only make sense to one other. We are also often unable to bridge disciplinary boundaries and get out of the area studies cliques. There are many things broken and incomplete in our own academic training, and we will fall short, just as our mentors and teachers do too. In sum, we are guided by academic principles and follow in the footsteps of successful and legendary figures in our respective disciplines. Through every challenge, obstacles, and dead ends, as academics we are called upon to contribute towards scholarly and intellectual scholarship.
But who decides what is an intellectual project? The bewildering stories of reviewers in the academy, I believe, deserve an honest conversation among academics. There are unspoken questions of multiple hierarchies in the academy, but who are the priests and priestesses who stand at entrance of the high gates of knowledge also known as peer-reviewed journals? What are the voices and arguments they demand of academics to be considered worthy of being published in certain “top-tier” journals? The term peer review is problematic because it is an anonymous and hazy process. Reviewers can get away with anything in the name of displaying an expertise, even causing trauma to fellow academics, to stay afloat as the undisputed and dedicated expert on a theme, topic, and region. Often, a select band of academics and networks are perceived to breathe knowledge and remain custodians of the grand arguments. Of course, to be the grand master is also to display brutal and arrogant intellectual might.
My encounter with Reviewer 2 was over a book chapter. It was a co-edited book (there were two editors) and I was assigned to work with one of them. Given that the editor and I were on different continents, we held two Skype calls to discuss my book chapter. I was grateful that he was excited about the book project. The editor categorically conveyed that he was looking for an “original essay” from the contributors, a piece that was not published anywhere else. This was a lie. After the book came out in 2018, I glanced at the chapters and saw that two or more chapters were reprints from journals and newsletters. Starting in fall 2016, the editor worked on my draft and provided comments and suggestions for me to add literature and concepts. I began to revise my ethnographic chapter and added the readings, including a concept that one of the editors had developed in his book. I revised the chapter several times, until a period when I became uncomfortable. I wrote an email to the editor with my concerns. I felt that I was losing my ethnographic voice because he was constantly editing my voice and asking me to add more literature. I wanted to center my ethnographic material and avoid suffocating it with literature. For instance, I remember being asked to “consider” adding Ann Stoler’s concept of ruination. I then received an agitated email from the editor.
He wrote that my chapter was unclear and that he would not stop suggesting changes until he was convinced of the clarity and standard of the essay. His tone was aggressive and arrogant. The editor and I are contemporaries, perhaps a year apart in obtaining our doctoral degrees, but there was nothing collegial about this experience. His tone and demeanor as an editor were intimidating. He taught me about the “superior” breed of academics and what they are made of. No one is good enough for them, except perhaps those within their privileged academic circle of networks.
Over a period of 12 months or more, my peer-editor had gradually taken on the mantle of my supervisor and was asking me to rewrite the chapter repeatedly. As a fellow anthropologist, he has never visited Northeast India. He was not interested in reflecting on or learning about my anthropological findings. As he asserted his authority and confidence, I doubted my analysis and writing skills as an academic. There was a constant reminder about being “unclear.” This was rust for my soul. It was eating my confidence and self-esteem.
I truly wished the editors had dropped my paper right after the academic workshop. I felt like I made it to their “superstar academic contributors list” out of pity. Throw a chapter bone to this incompetent bitch! The more I revised my chapter, the less excited I felt about it. Eventually, my chapter looked like a botched plastic surgery. It felt like a possessed body that was speaking a different language. I received the final round of peer review comments from the publisher. Reviewer 2 came with sledgehammer and destroyed my chapter. The review’s opening sentences read, “It would need a very significant amount of close work to make it acceptable and on par with the other contributions. The introduction’s brief statement that references this chapter as an example of frontierization (p15) is much clearer than the chapter itself.” Then my chapter was set ablaze and killed at the altar of academic clarity and excellence.
Reviewer 2’s comments were attached with an email from the editor which read as follows:
We have finally received reviews from the XXX book. As you will see, while the reviews for the book overall were positive, there is quite a bit of feedback on your individual chapter and reviewer 2 has raised concerns about whether it fits into the volume as it stands.
You have, in the past, expressed that you have invested as much time in this chapter as you are willing to give. Given that the feedback augers significant further revisions, are you willing to continue working on it?
If yes, we’d be happy to have you in the volume, but would need to work together to make sure that all of the reviewer’s concerns are met. We are hoping to move this back to the publishers to meet a Spring 2019 pub date, which means we would need to get your revisions back before the end of the month.
I received this email on April 5, 2018. The reference to “before the end of the month” meant I had three weeks to do a major revision and resubmit the chapter. I was in the middle of a teaching semester. I realized it was time to call it a day. A journey that started in April 2016 ended in April 2018 with an ulcer-inducing climax. I wanted to speak to the editor. A telephone conversation took place. I distinctly remember these lines he uttered, “You are welcome to drop out.” He wanted to come out as the hero, magnanimous and generous for giving me an exit strategy right before the final book draft was sent to the publisher. I questioned him: “What are you doing? We both work on South Asia, and we will meet in conferences and workshops for the rest of our academic life. Why are you doing this?” “I am sorry,” he mumbled. I told him that I was dropping out, and he sounded relieved. As I put down the receiver, my heart was pounding and I was sweating. I put my hands on my face and cried. I felt humiliated and ashamed. I was an imposter. I was not good enough even for an edited book, forget an academic journal. I felt the shame of not being “on par” with the other contributors. There must be a non-murky way to uphold academic rigor other than attacking and tearing drafts apart. I survived the trauma of the academic ritual called peer-review, and my lesson is to never take on the guise of Reviewer 2, or the editor, who sacrifices an essay at the altar of academic clarity and excellence.
What this experience taught me to question was the role of editors. Are they able to stand up to the reviewers? Are they able to nurture their contributors? For edited books, there are usually three ways editors solicit for chapters. First, it is organic. Colleagues and teams of researchers working together over a period of time on a research project decide to pitch for an edited book proposal. Second, chapters are solicited from individual contributors. Here, it is assumed that the editors have a working knowledge of or follow the scholarship of the respective contributors. Finally, editors send out a call for proposals and a selection process takes place. In all of these three processes, the editor’s job is to see how contributors and their work fit into the theme of the book. It is a tough job, but if they are not able to figure this out, they should not be editing books.
Edited books are publications that benefit the editor more than the individual contributors, so it is worth asking, Why do they exist? First, the edited book could be a career-advancing project. In that case, nobody should begrudge the editors, but contributors should also be aware why they are writing a chapter for an edited book. Second, your academic chapter is not a charity offering. As a contributor, you are helping advance someone’s career, and perhaps yours too. So, step into the edited circle with your eyes wide open. Figure out whether your chapter sits well in the book. Finally, there is a basic professional courtesy and decency. We are all part of the academy. Dropping a contributor or giving them an exit strategy must done at the beginning of the book project. When contributors have worked on the comments and yet editors decide to drop them at the last stage, it reflects poorly on the editors. Sometimes editors and reviewers try to prove they are the experts in the field. But in many cases, contributors know much more than the editors and reviewers. My rejected chapter is completely alive, in all its beauty and clarity in my book.
Dolly Kikon is an anthropologist. She teaches at the University of Melbourne. You can check her research profile at www.dollykikon.com.
Kikon, Dolly. Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2019.
Kikon, Dolly & Bengt Karlsson. Leaving the Land: Indigenous Migration and Affective Labour in India, New Delhi, Cambridge University Press. 2019.
Kikon, Dolly & Duncan McDuie-Ra. 2021. Ceasefire City: Militarism, Capitalism, and Urbanism in Dimapur, New Delhi, Oxford University Press.