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27 April: The Devil You Know

Published onJul 09, 2019
27 April: The Devil You Know

Rejection is a professional hazard in academic life. It can take the form of a cast out grant application, or a ‘thanks but no thanks’ missive from an academic journal or publisher. Part of the challenge of becoming an academic writer is how to avoid being defeated by failure. Samuel Beckett might well have been referring to the academy when he wrote in his prose piece ‘Worstward Ho’: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

But the price of academic failure is increasing. In the UK funding of university departments is in large part determined through the assessment of staff research and publications. So getting published and raising research money is increasingly essential in the hothouse of higher education. Yet the fate of proposals and written work is in large part sealed by people whose names we do not know. They are the anonymous referees whom funding agencies and editorial boards summon to pass expert judgement.

Ros Gill has argued that the reviewing process is becoming increasingly toxic and cruel. Citing a number of examples she shows how ‘critical evaluation’ is reduced to destructive, dismissive and undermining personal attacks. Every academic has a collection of reviews of this kind. Gill suggests that the reviewer’s ire is fed by the competitiveness and frustrations of contemporary academic culture. Here, she argues, the person under review becomes the target of a ‘repressed rage bursting out as an attack against someone who is not the cause of it . . . where academics may feel that they can exercise some power – thus they ‘‘let rip’’, occasionally cruelly, under the cloak of guaranteed anonymity’.

In a world where debates over freedom of information and civil rights are increasingly being connected, can we defend a situation where the fruits of our intellectual labours are decided by nameless judges who are not held accountable for the content of their opinions? I know many people, myself included, who have pored over a referee’s comments for lexical fingerprints, those telltale traces of the reviewer’s identity such as references to their own written output, evidence of their pet concerns or penchant for archaic printer fonts. Negative reviews which damn with faint praise are particularly devastating for a research grant application. With competition for research council grants so high, it only takes one negative review to consign an application to the dustbin.

Defenders of retaining the anonymous reviewing system argue that it allows reviewers to be frank and honest. ‘If reviewers had to be named it would lead to anodyne and meaninglessly bland assessments’, they say. Or, more self-interestedly: ‘If colleagues knew I had written their review they would never invite me to give conference papers, or to contribute to edited books.’ But isn’t concealment the worst kind of deceit? ‘I’d be delighted to go to Rome on an academic freebie, so long as I can keep under wraps that I sabotaged your publishing aspirations.’ These are weak justifications.

Often editorial boards have to act as the arbiters in this play of personal grudges and tainted judgement. Editors are in the unenviable position of having to decide how much of the brutal detail in the referee’s report to disclose. The best try to protect the sometimes fragile confidence of scholars by filtering out their worst excesses. These difficult editorial dilemmas might easily be avoided if the system were more transparent.

Anonymity has provided a mask behind which petty jealousies, envy, spitefulness, rivalry and intellectual sectarianism has flourished. This can also operate with devastating effect within the research assessment exercises like the Research Excellence Framework that operates within an anonymous peer review system. Hiding behind anonymity, reviewers can savage the work of a whole department while at the same time recruit some of the very same colleagues to be included in their own edited collections.

My strength of feeling on this issue was sealed when a senior professor of sociology sent me his comments on an article I’d written with John Solomos and Tim Crabbe that he’d refereed. In a scribbled note he explained that he ‘didn’t believe in anonymous reviewing’. It has to be said that his comments were fairly trenchant, but I respected him all the more because he did not hide behind the referee’s privilege of secrecy. He made me realize that anonymous reviewing is a bankrupt and indefensible practice.

Now when I write a review of applications or a paper I follow his example, and send my comments directly to its author(s), and I would encourage others to do so. I’ve heard it said this would make it harder to find reviewers, particularly for journal submissions.

But I think we have to have more backbone. Such transparency might even make reviewing more careful and thoughtful. This problem doesn’t end with deciding the fate of grant applications and journal submissions; the lack of accountability in criticism is a symptom of a wider syndrome. Our intellectual culture is sadly lacking an ethics of measured critique. Cheap and vituperative asides creep into the best academic writing.

As a result, argument can degenerate all too quickly into name-calling. Years of scholarly endeavour can be dismissed with a few cutting sentences aimed only to bolster their author’s credentials and authenticity. This has produced a situation in which appearing to be a harsh critic – and in teaching the equivalent is being a tough marker – is a prized attribute and evidence of a truly ‘pumped up’ brain. This is little more than a form of intellectual machismo – which can be embraced equally by women and men – so that substantive disagreement becomes almost a sideshow. My view is simple. If the critics do not have the integrity to be accountable for the content of their assessments, they shouldn’t put fingers to keyboard.

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