On Academic Nastiness

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Academic journal publishing employs a system of anonymous peer review. Work is submitted anonymously to a journal, which then arranges for it to be reviewed by other experts in the field, who also remain anonymous. The reviewers compose a report that itemizes the submission’s merits and flaws, and eventually recommending publication, rejection, or revision-and-resubmission. The reports are shared with the submitting academic, along with a final judgment about whether the work will be published.

Every academic has stories about how this process can go haywire. Many of these stories have to do with that one reviewer, the one who seemed hell-bent on not only misunderstanding but willfully resisting the point of an essay, the one who wrote an off-the-rails, and just nasty, rebuke of the submission. The anonymous peer review process at academic journals, it seems, encourages this kind of behavior. Not only does the reviewer not know who the author is, but the author will not know who the reviewer is. And all the intuitions shared about how anonymity on the internet produces trolls bear on temptations too many reviewers give in to.

Most journal reviewing, in the humanities at least, is done without compensation. It is a service to the profession, added on to one’s teaching, university service, and research responsibilities. And it shows up out of the blue, with a short invitation from a journal editor and maybe an abstract. It’s often onerous, and too often simply annoying. In the climate of publish or perish, many essays go out to the journals before they are ready, and in fields with fast-moving controversies, they must or else be untimely. So reviewers are faced with essays that are additions to their already heavy workloads that could have used more time. And the inclination to take one’s frustrations out on the author is just too great. Add to all of this the simple but pathological delight of punching those who cannot defend themselves or hit back. We have been on the helpless receiving end of such pummeling. Many times.

Here are a few highlights:

This essay is so badly conceived, I would not have accepted it from my most mediocre undergraduates.

This essay is intermittently clear and unclear, but when it’s clear it’s only clearly wrong.

The style of this piece is inappropriate for an academic context.  Perhaps better for a popular venue or dorm room.

Another and even more misguided attempt at clarification is when the author laughably compares this concept to something even more inscrutable.

The author exhibits no functional knowledge of Greek.

We could go on. Some of these came early in our academic careers, and we’ve quoted them by heart. They left a mark. They still sting. And yet we can also appreciate the smirk their authors made for themselves when penning these sardonic jibes.

The irony about all this is the simple fact that nasty academic reviews are overwhelmingly written by people who see themselves as (and probably are) generous and thoughtful people. Good teachers, charitable readers, and those who look out for those coming into the profession. Surely, they recognize a negative report on an academic submission need not be also demeaning. Still, when they sit down to write a rejection note, they become something else. Something ugly.

We’ve written our share of academically nasty stuff. We’ve reviewed books we thought were garbage, and we’ve responded to papers and research programs we thought were irresponsible and intellectually vicious. And we said so. Forcefully. Sometimes, our names were on that work, and sometimes the rules ran that it had to be anonymous. We’re guilty, too.

We aren’t looking to eliminate this phenomenon. That would require we become something different from humans. There is a childish bully in all of us. And part of being an intellectual is to feel like some academic turf is yours. The key is to find ways to curb the childish bully’s inclinations, and for the adults to do a little better managing the puerile interactions about the turf.

How to curb the inclinations? We all know that person whom we may affectionately describe as not suffering fools gladly. The problem is that plenty of folks who aren’t fools get plenty of heat, too. And even the fools don’t seem to come out any better for it. What’s the objective one has when one proceeds in this fashion? It’s that one feels anger about one’s time being misdirected or misused by the submitting author. And one feels the overweening desire to punish them for it. So, the cutting remark or rude dismissal. The thing to remember is that review work isn’t self-promotion, but service work. To the profession, and for those hoping to contribute. Remembering one’s role in it all as a reviewer modifies that conception of what’s happening when one reads an essay that feels just too annoying. One can still be critical, but the desire to hurt evaporates. At least it should.

How to manage the scramble? This falls to editors and maybe to our better angels as reviewers. Journal editors need to screen off some of the more hurtful and insulting parts of reviews. That’s a lot of work, and for sure it’s easier to pass the review along untouched. But harm befalls authors when reviews are nasty, and one of those harms is that people leave the discussion because they can’t stand how they are treated in it. We were fortunate. We had supportive peers, good mentors, and, well, each other when the really mean stuff came in. We’d read it out and feel bad. And then we would have a laugh – Reviewer 2 strikes again! But not everyone (and in fact, much fewer than that!) has such luck to have that kind of community around them.

Academic work needs to have a critical edge. The opposition between views is reason’s friction.  But the issue for us is to find ways for that opposition, and even our conflicting personal interests in that opposition, not to escalate to contempt. We can’t eliminate that propensity, but we can find ways to stem its flow. That may not be enough, but it’s worth starting there.