‘Unfortunately, our referees are not up to the job’


Summer. Time for a travail guide. Peer review – the inescapable destination of academics’ intellectual progeny at vacation time – is an inhospitable shore: its beaches mine-strewn, its entertainments dubious, its climate dodgy, its sights depressingly familiar, its pleasant surprises few. Its inhabitants speak an impenetrable argot and often respond, when visitors make honest efforts to communicate, with evasive or obstructive blather. So here, with translations into English and hopefully helpful glosses, are highlights from a phrase book for those baffled by peer-reviewese:

“Unfortunately, the submission does not reflect the current state of the discipline.”

Translation: “Unfortunately for the hidebound reviewer, the submission is ahead of its time.”

Only dreary, dim and pointless work reflects “the current state of scholarship”. If that is all you can do, you have nothing worth saying. Reviewers may want to confine rivals to regurgitation. But every scholar’s or scientist’s aim should be to sharpen the cutting edge and cleave tradition. That’s the only way to change minds, improve the world and achieve intellectual longevity. We do not need more of what academics have already done. The great task is to grasp what will interest and absorb them in future.

“Unfortunately, the submission does not engage with recent scholarship.”

Translation: “I’m miffed because my own stuff isn’t mentioned.”

Submissions are opportunities to augment knowledge or ignite debate, not to gratify colleagues’ vanity. One should not have to cite work that is irrelevant or inferior merely to indemnify oneself against rejection by or resentment from its authors.

“Unfortunately, students will find this work difficult to understand.”

Translation: “I find it difficult to understand”, or “My students are idiots.”

It’s a common form of academic egotism to undervalue one’s pupils. Some reviewers are prejudiced by their own ways of working, or by their unwillingness to admit that anything is new to them, or by self-incarcerating expectations, or by indebtedness to earlier generations, or by idées fixes derived from numbingly voluminous reading. They are less well able to understand innovation than students who are fresh and whose minds are uncluttered.

“Unfortunately, the submission shows sign of over-hasty preparation.”

Translation: “There is a misplaced comma in footnote 35 on page 74.”

This applies to submitted proposals only. In my experience as a reviewer, most proposals – regardless of merit or promise – are poorly prepared, because the system forces authors to expend so much energy, at such high cost, for so little gain, on procedural tedium. The returns are so sporadic and insecure that it makes poor sense to invest heavily in terms of time and trouble. Academics of genuine vocation want to get on with real work rather than with the submissions that delay or impede it.

“Unfortunately, the submission lacks gender balance.”

Translation: “The submission is insufficiently sexist: it would be fine if it featured women just because they’re women rather than because they’re relevant.”

It would be outright sexism, for instance, to exclude men’s work from a compilation or anthology in favour of women’s work that is less good or more marginal.

“Unfortunately, the submission lacks a gender-centred approach.”

Translation: “The submission doesn’t pay lip service to modish shibboleths about gender.”

Gender is a study topic of anglophone origin. Submissions that avoid it often do so for reasons of broader cultural sensitivity.

“Unfortunately, the submission is insufficiently specific about potential impact.”

Translation: “The submission is commendably open-ended and proposes research for its own sake.”

Times Higher Education’s readers don’t need repeated or protracted laments over present fashions in funding. Anyone who can pre-judge the outcome of his or her research can only promote limited “impact” in the true sense of the word. Genuinely mould-breaking possibilities are occluded at the start of any project and often unrevealed before its end. Innovation will wither unless we develop funding strategies that favour the freedom of open minds.

“Unfortunately, the submission may cause offence on grounds of cultural appropriation.”

Translation: “I have taken leave of my senses as a reviewer.”

Cultural appropriation is good: it is the foundation of progress. We expand the range of our thinking when we appropriate other cultures’ ideas, of our sympathies when we borrow their customs, and of our lives when we take on aspects of their technologies and economies.

“Unfortunately, some of the proposed co-authors are not specialists in the field.”

Translation: “I am a jealous, narrow-minded reviewer and would not accept work from Darwin, who had no doctorate, or Aristotle, who was a polymath, or Marie Curie, who flipped fields, or Alan Marshack, who was an amateur.”

If we are to practise interdisciplinarity instead of just prating about it, we need collaborators of contrasting backgrounds, who can spark off each other. Outsiders in any field bring fresh approaches and objective judgements, untrapped in the web of professional obligations, unconstrained by professorially policed boundaries of thought. Amateurs may have the innocence of angels. There is something to be said for brilliance unalloyed with erudition. As Hobbes said, “If I had read as much as other men, I should know no more than other men.”

For all the reasons implied, peer reviewers need to be reviewed in their turn. Discard stick-in-the-mud responders. Seek reviewers unafraid of novelty, eager for surprise and sensitive to the possibilities of triumph against merely calculable odds. Don’t sacrifice potentially excellent adventures to the lesser gods of the middling and the mean.

Author Bio: Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history at the University of Notre Dame in the US.