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“Reviews that made me cry”

September 12, 2013

I’m borrowing this expression from one of Biella Coleman’s tweets, not to emphasise her message, but since it embodies well my feelings regarding a review report on one of my manuscripts. The report included a lot of strange comments, combined with the statement that I make an important point and the manuscript deserves to be published.  Having taken part of this report, I can’t but question the position and role of the reviewer in the peer review process. Just to illustrate the constitution of the review, I’ll give some examples from it.

The reviewer states that I’m using a historiographic methodology. I’m anthropologist and the central argument and main topic in the manuscript is to define and use a distinct anthropological methodology; radical phenomenology. The central argument has been twisted and turned. Instead of a focus on a meta-theoretical discussion on method, this reader claims that the argument centres on the point “the subjects life world should be treated as an imaginary”. The reader suggests that I should discuss literature that is already included in the manuscript. The integration of the chapters is questioned, giving the example that the same historical movement figures in two different chapters. The chapters in question discuss distinct aspects of a huge historical event. Further the logic of the chapters is defined in the introduction. The main problem for this reviewer concerns the informants and informants’ statements. The reviewer claims that I’m mistreating the informants in the texts and I’m accused of things as rendering them in the form of a laundry list, use them in bulk statements and so on. My use of my informants’ statements is clearly defined in the different chapters and is closely related to my wider methodological approach, where I find it relevant to refer to them as background statements in certain parts, and rendering informants full statements in others. I’m working with an elite category, including some well-known scholars, and the last point make me question if this reviewer has some kind of relationship to this category, and is keen to promote the voices of his own peers and people. To mention some of the points…

In my case, the manuscript was based on a thesis, and it had been examined by three external referees, and also, put through the Swedish tradition of disputation, i.e. I had to defend my manuscript in public, with an internationally well-known scholar as opponent. The thesis was passed. I’m not the only one complaining about reviewers’ capricious approaches and comments on texts. Brian Martin, professor of social sciences at the university of Wollongong (2013) question the objectivity of the peer review process, stating that after submitting a number of papers to a number of different journals, he has found that the reviews and decisions on the papers differs widely, however, the quality of the papers are the same. Another illuminating case is found in the essay “Peer Review and Changing a light bulb: a Historians view”. The result after a review process including numbers of reviewers was dozens of mutually contradictory suggestions for improvement of the text.

The Swedish Research Council has put forward ethical guidelines for scholars taking on peer review assignments. The guidelines are further supported by SULF, the Swedish union for academics. They include the following points: A peer review assignment should not be undertaken, unless the scholar is willing top put in enough time to ensure a well- performed review and make a scrupulous examination of the material. The comments and judgements that the reviewer put forward should be based on a careful validation of the scientific quality of the material and the judgements should be well- founded. The material should be reviewed objectively. All personal preferences should be put aside and if the scholar is situated in a position where the contribution could be biased, or it exist any possibilities for a lack of objectivity in the assessment of the material, the scholar should reject taking on the assignment. A critical stance should be taken towards any unfounded suggestions or influences from a third party. (Swedish Research council 2011, SULF 2004). This is not to say that all Swedish scholars follow the guidelines, but at least it exist a framework for it, that makes it possible to question the reviewers’ contributions.

Maybe this should be something to think about for editors and publishers, if they haven’t already done it. It certainly should make life easier for us, the writers of papers and manuscripts, with some kind of criteria for the review process. A second thought in this process concerns the editors and publishers. What are their responsibilities in this? Are they supposed to have enough knowledge about the manuscript that they take on to determine whether or not the review is relevant?

Kerstin B Andersson

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