An Alternative Manifesto on Peer Review, or, 21 Subjectively Ironclad Rules for Keeping Peer Review Sane – Part 3: Survival Rules for All Involved

This post wraps up my discussion, based on years of laboring in the salt mines of journal operations, of how to make peer review work for the good of authors, journals, and the discipline they serve. Part 1 concerned what reviewers ought to do, and Part 2 concerned what action editors ought to do, in order to sustain a productive per review system. Now I turn my attention to sustaining peer review teams.

Peer review isn’t some abstract concept… it’s a thing that people do. As authors, we all love to complain about the slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune perpetrated against us by peer reviewers — and, indeed, misfires of the peer review system were part of my inspiration for offering up Parts 1 and 2 of this post. But we rarely talk about the wear and tear that the peer review system imposes on the people who make it possible.

To be sure, I’ve derived some great benefits from being involved in the peer review process as a reviewer and action editor. I’ve gotten to read amazing work before it went to press. I’ve met amazing people who shared in the burden of making peer review happen. And, as an author, seeing peer review from the inside made me better at preparing my own manuscripts for others to review. So I’m not complaining, exactly, but there’s nothing unseemly about a sanguine perspective on what it means to be a cog in the peer review wheel.

So let’s tell a key truth about per review: It’s damned hard work that is done in a person’s “free time.” And you don’t get much respect for doing it. If you’re a reviewer, authors can’t thank you for your trouble (assuming they wanted to) because reviewing is usually blinded. If you’re an action editor, authors usually don’t thank you — more often they chafe under the perceived boot of your editorial oppression. And the blowback from this can have long-lasting effects on collegial relationships. One colleague, with whom I shared research interests and was once fairly close, stopped talking to me permanently after he disagreed with my editorial decision on one of his manuscripts.

Here’s another hard truth about peer review: It advances other people’s careers at the expense of your own. Every hour I spend commenting on someone else’s manuscript is an hour I can’t devote to collecting data or writing up my own research. As a result, my file drawer is stuffed with now-forgotten studies that died a slow, silent death from neglect during the years I was most consumed by doing editorial work. if you’re the kind of person who counts publications, I would have a lot more to count had I not done so much journal work. Oh, and do you want to know what that sacrifice bought me at my home institution? In the annual faculty evaluation process, my university considers editorial work, not as a contribution to scholarship, but rather as “service” … along with participating in departmental committees and organizing the department holiday party and other high-powered intellectual pursuits. Service is a tiny slice of my annual appointment, and editorial work is credited as a tiny slice of that slice.

When I was offered my first position as an associate editor, I went to my boss to ask if I could be released from teaching one course a year so I’d have the time to do this important job. I was feeling quite proud and was certain my boss would be thrilled at the honor and recognition I was bringing to my department — after all, at the time no one from my department had previously been in a high-level editorial role. Rather than celebrating with me, however, my boss was incredulous. “I can’t give you a course release,” he said. “If I set that precedent, everyone will become an associate editor and I’ll have nobody left to teach classes.” I am not making this up. This senior scholar, author of books and journal articles himself, thought so little of editorial work that he presumed it could be casually picked up on a whim, sort of like reserving a pickleball court at the local community center. Suffice it to say that editorial work is not something one does for the glory of it.

But I don’t intend this as a “poor me” diatribe. I’m only trying to highlight that real people do editorial work at real cost, which sets the stage for my final three rules of peer review, which concern preserving the well being of the people charged with preserving the well-being of the system.

Survival Rules for All Involved

  1. Reviewers and action editors, repeat after me: “The peer system cannot operate without me.” Your first obligation, regardless of what anyone implies about “the good of the journal” or “your duty to the discipline,” is to assure that you’re an intact human being to perform the necessary duties. Here’s a counter-example: I have a colleague who accepts about 50 review assignments per year, or a new one every 8 days or so. Nobody can do that much, along with a day job and eating and sleeping and exercising and spending 5 minutes a day with family, and remain an intact human being. Unfortunately, if you’re any good at all with peer review, the prevailing contingencies will push toward getting you overcommitted. There are too many journals and too many manuscripts for the available pool of reviewers. There’s a good chance that you will be asked to do more than you can do well — and you, as a good servant of the discipline, will be inclined to suck it up and do more because it’s the right thing to do. That’s noble but short sighted. You’re no good to anyone if you burn out and/or if you get in a hurry and do bad work. If putting your own well-being first feels unnatural, keep this in mind: Odds are a massive publishing company is getting incredibly rich from the free labor you’re contributing to the peer review system. It’s okay not to destroy yourself to make that possible. Therefore…
  2. Be a good citizen, but also just say NO when you must. Accept the assignments you can do promptly and well, and respectfully decline others. A critical piece of learning the peer review trade, therefore, is determining what kind of manuscript work load you can handle. This will vary wildly across individuals, of course, depending on talents, habits, and competing contingencies. Your own threshold cannot and should not be based on anyone else’s. Saying no is harder for action editors than for reviewers, so, editors-in-chief, please be kind to your action editors. If you need more help, that’s something to take up with the journal’s owner, not to solve on the backs of people who are already working too hard.
  3. This is a corollary of Rule #2 that’s primarily for reviewers but can be adapted for action editors. Lately I have been accepting reviewer assignments only if I am 99.3% sure, based on my current workload, I can get the review done within 2-7 days. In many cases I will return my review within 24 hours. This means, of course, that I have to turn down assignments, but that’s in service of the rock-solid principle of effort discounting. I know that if offered a more extended time line, the required work seems smaller at the moment of commitment, making me more likely to accept the assignment. But the farther in the future that deadline falls, the less sure I can be I’ll actually have time to do the job. So my recommendation is to always think of reviewing as a very short-term deal. The main goal is to protect yourself from your good intentions… but note that in the process you may also burnish your reputation as a reviewer. In the long run nobody will remember the assignments you declined, but each time you return a review in 24-48 hours the action editor, who’s accustomed to having to chase down tardy reviews, will think you’re some kind of civically-obsessed superhuman. As for action editors, I would recommend that if, when an article is assigned to you, you don’t have time to get out reviewer invitations within 24-48 hours, you turn down the assignment. This is an indication that you are stretched too thin. By the way, there are two primary bottlenecks in an action editor’s job — getting those reviews in progress, and writing decision letters. Another occasion on which to turn down new assignments is when you have decision letters waiting to be written. Those represent a pre-existing commitment to authors and reviewers and should be prioritized.

There you have it: My perspective on keeping peer review sane. While you might not agree with all of my propositions, I hope we can agree that peer review is a critical mechanism to scholarship that can only serve its purpose if it works for and with the human beings who are involved. If you have thoughts about how to better accomplish that, I’d love to hear them (!