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October 4, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The Ethics of Peer Review in the Age of Adjunctification

Academics inhabit a world in which the difference between having an article published or not can mean the difference between landing a tenure track job or not. Later in an academic’s career, the difference between one or two articles and a few might mean the difference in earning tenure or not. Peer reviewers are often in the position to make decisions that can change people’s lives. So why does peer review often take so long — months and sometimes years? Committing to timely peer review is a vital ethical resolution that might significantly change the academic landscape.

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Recently, peer review has become the subject of some discussion in the academic blogosphere. Some academics have argued for the ability to track versions of an article after publication, so that corrections could be made to online versions after publication, thereby leading to commenters providing positive rather than negative reviews. Others have suggested that a quid-pro-quo approach might lead to more timely and careful reviews. Regardless of the overall structure of how academic publishing happens — and I do think online, easily amended articles is a great idea and might significantly change citational practices — every peer reviewer could make a change for the better by committing to turning in a peer review within two weeks of being asked to review a manuscript.

Two weeks might seem arbitrary, but here’s my reasoning: if it takes longer than two weeks to get around to doing something, it usually takes a very long time. That is, most of us are pretty good at scheduling in the short term — a week or two — but when it comes to scheduling beyond the next month, things get nebulous. When an article manuscript falls into that nebulous beyond-the-next-month period, it’s probably going to get lost in the shuffle. And when it comes time to read it, it’ll probably be because an editorial assistant is hounding you and not because you scheduled to read it in two months’ time. This means I’m always scheduling a peer review, even if I don’t have a manuscript on hand. If I don’t get asked to do a peer review, then it’s no big deal. But I’m ready if I am asked and don’t feel put out by the work.

Elsewhere, I’ve suggested the qualities that make for a productive peer review — generally, it boils down to helping the author make the most of the manuscript at hand. It might not be suitable for the journal that you’re reviewing for, but that’s usually up to the editor to decide. For the reviewers, the question is: what would it take for this manuscript to be published as an article in this journal? Answering that question might take a couple of hours of work — reading the article and writing up comments — and I would guess most of us spend two hours a day reading the news, checking social media, playing video games, or otherwise distracting ourselves from work. That can all wait; people’s careers can’t. Why not just commit to using that time for one’s peers, and when taking a break from one’s work, working for someone else?

We’ve all had long waits for peer reviews to come in, confusing editorial recommendations, and egregious publishing experiences, which has led me to develop these peer review practices, which might work for you too:

1) I always turn a review around in 2 weeks or less. If I don’t know the journal, I’ll take a few minutes to scan a couple articles to see if there are particular conventions in the journal’s published articles, just so I’m on the right page. I usually read a manuscript one day, taking notes while I do so, and then write the review the next day. If particular concerns nag me over the day, I’ll go back and read specific sections of the article again, just to make sure I read it right. My reviews tend to be 1-2 single-spaced pages, and focus on what it will take to make the article publishable. No snark, no random free association. Even if a manuscript is publishable as is, I still take the time to write up a review of what the author has done right, just so if some other reviewer has a different opinion, the editor and author have a sense that at least some readers are on the author’s side.

2) I never agree to review more than one manuscript at a time. If something comes in that I really want to review, I quickly review the manuscript already in my peer review queue and then agree to review the new manuscript.

3) If I can’t turn a review around in 2 weeks, I just say no to the invitation to review. Similarly, if the manuscript is way outside of my wheelhouse, I’ll also say no. But whenever I say no, I try and send the editorial assistant 3-4 names of other people who might be tapped for a review (no need to thank me, friends!); often, junior faculty aren’t really on the peer review map until they have a few publications under their belt, so it can be a benefit to both the reviewer and reviewee to send a manuscript to an untapped junior scholar (doing peer review makes people better writers… trust me on this).

4) If I’ve agreed to review the manuscript and find that I can’t be a kind peer reviewer for some reason, I get in touch with the editor and ask him or her to find a different reviewer. If this happens in the first two weeks that an article is out for review, it’s no big deal for the editor to turn around and find a new reviewer. But if it’s three months into the review process, it’s very harmful to the author of the manuscript, since now they have to begin the waiting process all over again…

Even if your final assessment is that a total overhaul is necessary, knowing that sooner rather than later will allow the author to get on with the necessary work — which might mean finding another journal. In a work context where people have very little time to focus on their own research and writing, being able to schedule necessary revisions is critical.

You might be the fastest of a set of reviewers, and so things will slow down while the editor waits for another review or two to come in. But if everyone starts reviewing more quickly, the whole machine of peer review should speed up noticeably for everyone. Not only will the academically precarious benefit, but so should scholars throughout the academic life course. If you’ve ever experienced a slow review process, commit to making it better for others by being a timely reader. Or at least refrain from agreeing to read something you don’t have the time for.

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