Journal Submissions, Part 2: Setting (Higher) Standards for Evaluations

This is the second post in a two-part series on the evaluation process for articles submitted to journals. In this first post, I (RDH) described a few of my more colourful experiences in the publishing game. In this second post, we offer our thoughts on the flip-side: the task of the reviewer/editorial board member. We recognize that there are editors and reviewers who excel and we commend them for their hard work. These comments are not in any way aimed at them. Indeed, even for those editors or reviewers who behave in ways similar to what we described in the first post, since it is unlikely that our views will matter to them, these comments are not aimed at them. Rather, as with all our posts on this blog, we hope to provoke a bit of rumination among younger scholars who will one day be editors or reviewers (and at whose mercy we may find ourselves some day!)

Being associated with a journal, whether as an editor, on the board, or as an external reviewer, is a weighty responsibility. Regardless whether one’s publishing experience has been pleasant or painful, it it important to keep one’s head up and turn the experiences into something positive. We heartily recommend working through these stages:

  1. Therapy: Get rid of your frustration over the review. Vent (in private, preferably). Comfort yourself (e.g., with beer, or cheesecake, or both!).
  2. Reflection: Look for something valuable among the comments and use the opportunity to make your article even better.
  3. Introspection: Promise yourself that when the day comes, you will be a conscientious and measured reviewer, focusing on issues of “fit” (for the journal), argument (e.g., coherence and philological rigour, regardless whether you “like” the conclusions), and clarity of writing (assenting nod to Marshall McLuhan).

And mind your “Yuck!” experience (or if you’ve never had one, then keep the one in Example 1 in the first post in mind!). In other words, strive to write blunt, honest, critical comments, but never mean, ungenerous, immature ones, and do your best to summarize the positive components of the submission first. Every rejected author should come away from the submission with something valuable and constructive.

For these reasons, when I was first asked to join an editorial board, I hesitated even though I was deeply honoured. First, I was unsure whether I could add the time commitment at that point (I was just entering my last year to add to my tenure portfolio) and I wanted to take the appointment seriously. Second, I would not have thought that I was far enough along in my career to be asked to serve this way. (As it was pointed out to me by a former mentor at the first physical meeting of the board, I stood out among all the “white hairs” on the board.) But after some thought I agreed, largely out of a sense of duty but also out of gratitude to the editor, that he would even consider me.  And it has been a very good experience. Yes, it’s time consuming, but the knowledge that I am serving our discipline in a valuable way always helps me work through the inevitable sigh when I receive another submission to evaluate.

And, getting through the sigh is important. I am now on two boards and served as an occasionally external reviewer for two other journals. The experience has been extremely rewarding. Not only have I learned much—some of the submissions are on issues I wouldn’t normally study—I have been forced to keep my reading skills sharp and fair and as bent towards objectivity as possible. This is certainly what we should desire in all our reading, but somehow the thought that someone is waiting anxiously for feedback personalizes the activity of reading more than in general research reading. To work towards responsible and irreproachable reviewing practices, we suggest three dictums to guide you through the task:

  1. Restrain yourself
  2. Maintain idealogical neutrality
  3. Protect the journal and the author

Restraint is required particularly when writing marginal comments and the final evaluation—the reviewer’s feedback should be at once critical and encouraging. Even scholars (whether junior or senior) gladly receive genuine encouragement (not the type of “encouragement” received in Example #5 in the first post!). We are, after all, still human. But presumably if you are reviewer, you were chosen due to an expertise germane to the topic of the submitted article, and so the criticism should be also substantive (compare Example #6 in the first post) and valuable (compare Examples ## 1, 3, 4 in the first post).

Idealogical neutrality means that the reviewer’s task is to note grammar and style, clear evidential support for the claims, and so overall a cogent argument. Critically, this has nothing to do with one’s own views (or one’s colleague’s/student’s/friend’s/spouse’s views) on the subject (compare Example #2 in the first post). This is another way of urging reviewer’s to strive for objectivity even if an article disagrees with the reviewer’s own work.

Protection, for both the journal and the author, is an academic and ethical obligation. Academically, an editor/reviewer is bound to uphold the quality of articles published within his/her journal. Ethically, failing due diligence in the evaluation of an article could conceivably result in harm to the author’s career. If articles are published that simply do not belong in print, it can only happen because the review process has failed both the journal (and its readership) and the author, whose work should have been turned down, with constructive criticism thereby enabling the necessary revision or rewriting (assuming the article has potential).

A Final Word

We’re all aware of the cliched phrase “publish or perish” and the consequent importance of peer-reviewed journal publications for tenure and promotion. At the same time, we are all similarly aware (and weary) of the proliferation of publications which, though of questionable quality, must still be taken into account in order to fulfill research diligence in one’s field of study. Within this awkward and flawed context, the care-taking task of editors and reviewers becomes more difficult and, if possible, even more important.

Ideally, we would like to see a decrease in publishing, where we all commit to slowing down the rush to print.One good article is worth a dozen mediocre articles. For this truism to become operative, though, will require the acknowledgement of its veracity by both those in positions of publishing power and those in positions of “tenure power.” So here our appeal for more responsible editors and reviewers morphs into an appeal to future departmental chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents: enough already—less is more!

As with our first post, when we invited stories about your experience receiving reviews, in this post we welcome stories or comments concerning the other side, evaluating journal submissions.

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