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. Read more »