I’ve been doing a decent amount of peer review work this summer. I was struck at how my own practices had changed over time.
First, I’m curious. How many people received some instruction about how to do peer review, any kind of advice at all, from advisors or teachers while you were in graduate school? It’s one of the first things we’re called upon to do as professionals when we have our first posts, but I get a sense that almost no one has any training in it. If you get trained, it’s almost by reading other people’s peer reviews of your own work.
As I think back, I don’t second-guess any of the peer reviews I’ve done of manuscripts. Mostly I’ve recommended for publication, in a few cases, I called for extensive revision. Usually I’ve tried to do fairly detailed commentaries on manuscripts, broken into two sections: a general overview of the book with an assessment of its contributions to scholarship, its appeal to potential audiences and so on and then specific comments on individual chapters where necessary. In some cases I haven’t bothered with the second part if the manuscript seems basically well-written, tightly structured, and so on.
But I have changed a good deal the way I approach journal-length pieces. When I started out, I wrote fairly extensive reviews that sometimes also verged on being (constructively) critical replies or incipient dialogues with the author(s) of the article. This now seems to me to be completely the wrong way to go about it. My only job in reviewing a journal-length article should be: does it add to the scholarly literature? Are its claims reasonable and well-based in evidence? Is it adequately written, and are its arguments clearly laid out? That’s it. If there are things I would do differently, or if it’s not really my cup of tea if I had my druthers, that’s not my business to say as a peer reviewer. That’s up to the journal editors. I finished a review of an essay in a game studies context that I thought was based on good research, had a clear argument, and contributed to the literature. I wasn’t sure it entirely matched my understanding of the journal’s specific interests, but that’s for them to decide. It isn’t the way I would approach the particular subject that the article authors were studying, but that’s not relevant.
I know that editors (both of journals and book presses) often include a document explaining what they’d like a peer reviewer to do, but I don’t really have a sense of whether that’s what most peer reviewers end up doing. Judging from some peer reviews I’ve received over the years, I’d say that in some cases, not very much. I’m sure most practicing academics have gotten at least one of those peer reviews that consists largely of a demand that the author cite way more secondary literature in order to prove his/her scholarly credentials, and as long as the author is at it, please cite the peer reviewer’s work far more extensively thanks very much.
When I’m not thinking that maybe we ought to just abolish peer review altogether in the humanities, I’m wondering about whether we can change it–or at least have a more transparent collective discussion about how it should be done.