Sunday, July 18, 2010

my adventures as a blind referee

"I’m also in the midst of… my annual report to the university on what I’ve been publishing – the strange answer is nothing. You see, nothing counts but “refereed” material. My three books of the last two years, and my five coming up in the press, these count for nothing, and scads of essays and reviews – scrap paper. Periodically I’m cautioned by the Dean for underachievement."
–Guy Davenport to Nicholas Kilmer, 16 November 1980

True Stories from the Annals of Blind Refereeing

Part I: So I got a request from Leading Journal in my Field the other day to serve as a referee for an essay on Major Semi-Canonical Poet. Okay, thought I, I am without doubt one of the 2 or 3 "authorities" on M. S-C. P., & I make an effort at keeping up with the criticism, so I'll do it. I read Critic X's paper, & on a 1st read found it – well – excellent. But I was a trifle peeved that Critic X managed to write 30-odd pages on M. S-C. P., including lots of biographical references, without once citing my work. Grrrr. 2 possibilities suggest themselves: Critic X doesn't like me, for whatever reason; or Critic X doesn't like my work. I don't know which makes me sadder, but I suppose I'll go ahead & recommend publication.

Part II: Hard on the heels of that request, Preeminent Journal Not Just in My Field But in the Whole Bloody Discipline asks me to be the tie-breaking blind referee for Critic Y's essay on Major Canonized Poet & Semi-Major Semi-Canonized Composer. These folks are efficient: not merely do they send the request, but they attach the essay, the readers' guidelines, & the 2 previous reports (not, by the way, anonymously – so I know who writ 'em). Reader B says "let's get Critic Y to rewrite & reconsider; there's good stuff here." Reader A rejects the essay outright. Principal reason? Critic Y has failed to take account of Reader A's own essay on M. C. P. & S-M. S-C. C., included oh-so-recently in a collection of essays published by a UK press very few of whose books, I suspect, make it across the Atlantic.

Discuss, drawing yr own conclusions.
Hey, we've finally got the DSL & the wifi set up here on Fire Island, & I feel once again as tho I'm plugged into the whole buzzing world of people vicariously living their lives online. To hell with the beach, the bay, & the boardwalks! I'm blogging again!


D.LoSchiavo said...

Why don't they just call is some refs from the world cup to make the call ;->

tyrone said...

so goes the biz as Nate Tarn used to say...

E. M. Selinger said...

Academia Meets Pirates of Penzance, sounds like to me. "With all their faults / We love our Peers"!

(The fellow who complains about his essay being missing is being petty and unprofessional, and should be dropped from that journal's House of Lords, btw. That flaw earns at most a "revise and resubmit.")

E. M. Selinger said...

It strikes me, too, that the first essay (with the biographical refs, but not to A Certain Biography) should probably be an "accept with revisions." If that piece goes to press w/o so much as a mention of ACB, it does a disservice to its readers, who might look to its footnotes & bibliography for leads & future research. A minor revision, but a necessary one, I'd say.

Julie said...

A critical book by me went through review at a University Press- first reader says "yea! publish it!," second reader says, "piece of crap, but maybe I feel that way because she didn't cite my works on the subject." (none of which are actually ON the subject, but are just sort of on the subject.) Nonetheless, nay sayer wins out. Maybe the person who wrote the first essay had read your works but didn't quote directly and so didn't put in "works cited"? Still, not mention is funny and can be easily mended.

Archambeau said...

It's hard not to be ambivalent about peer revision. I've had my ass kicked in the right direction by peer reviewers a couple of times (once by The Mighty Scroggs himself), but the drawbacks in the system almost outweigh the benefits (except perhaps in the sciences, the fields for which the system was actually developed). Let's break it down:

Benefit #1: The possibility of having one's ass kicked in the right direction by a sharp reviewer. This is good. But I tend to send my stuff out for feedback to people I respect anyway. Maybe the anonymity encourages greater candor, but still, one wonders whether the productive ass-kick can't be achieved by other means.

Benefit #2: USDA-Approved, FDA-Tested, Certified Grade A Premium Knowledge. If you're reading a peer-reviewed journal, you can usually count on the content to be non-deficient, non-lunatic stuff. The range may be from mediocre to brilliant, but at least it lops off the truly el-crappo time-waster essays. Promotion and tenure committees rely on this so that they don't have to actually read and evaluate a candidate's work themselves, which, given the workload of such committees and the specialization of knowledge, is not something to sneer at. At least not much.

Detriment #1. Consider the case of Guy Davenport, or of, say, a guy who publishes a lot in a journal like Parnassus. Davenport's own standards are higher than those of any peer-review outfit I know of, but his work didn't rate with the local powers. The editor of Parnassus is more of a hard-ass than any peer reviewers I've ever had, but writing for him also doesn't count. Oh, the lacunae!

Detriment #2. My peeps in the Communications and Media department describe peer review as a "centrifugal process" -- it encourages conformity over left-fieldery. Most left-fieldery is mere wing-nuttery, but some really important stuff, perhaps -the- really important stuff, also comes from there.

Detriment #3. The objectivity of peer-reviewers can be clouded by ego, in the way Mark describes.

I have absolutely no solution regarding all this.


undine said...

About scenario 1: I'm with E. M. Selinger. If it has biographical stuff AND he hasn't cited your biography (most current), he needs to do that, IMHO.

mongibeddu said...

Had an essay read by two reviewers for ESQ once. The first said publish; the second said reject, b/c the essay mentioned masturbation! The essay was then rejected. I'm almost proud of that nix.

tyrone said...

As comments suggest, the yes and no votes are not equivalent--all other things being equal, a no will trump a yes almost every time. Hence the conformity Bob mentions...