Academic Culture and Peer Review

Academic Culture and Peer Review

After some recent experiences with peer review and conversations with colleagues who have had similar experiences, I’ve been reflecting on respect within academic culture. Scholarship is fundamentally dependent upon the critically important peer review process. However, I’ve recently seen several instances of disrespectful and unconstructive review that seems to reflect a focus on ego rather than on improving scholarship and expanding knowledge.

To be clear, I am in no way arguing that critical or negative reviews are problematic by definition. I was even hesitant to write this post because I was concerned that it would be viewed as a complaint about receiving a negative review. I fully recognize that critical reviews are essential and that standards for scholarship need to be high to advance our disciplines. However, I see a clear divide between sarcastic, disrespectful reviews and productive, constructive reviews. I have seen these differences both in reviews of my own work and reviews written and received by colleagues. There is a difference between a critical and constructive review that respects the humanity of the author of the piece and reviews that are snarky and egotistical. The fact is that any piece of scholarship submitted for peer review is the product of hours of work (probably more) by the author. It is entirely possible to critique work and recommend against publishing it while maintaining this basic respect. In my view, there is in fact no benefit to sarcastic or rude comments except to feed the ego of an insecure reviewer.

After some recent conversations about this issue, I considered that academic programs should include training on how to write productive peer reviews. However, after more reflection I believe that this problem can’t be separated from a toxic academic culture that focuses on accolades and professional progress at any cost. This leads to a “zero-sum” concern for reputation. I believe that a reviewer who is willing to aggressively tear down a paper as opposed to being straightforward and respectful with critiques suffers from a deeper problem than a lack of knowledge about how to write a review. My own hesitancy to openly acknowledge that I’d even received critical reviews as opposed to portraying a (nonexistent) perfect record is another symptom of this same culture. I expect that this problem, and problems around mental health in academia, will continue absent a fundamental, cultural shift.

People enter doctoral programs and the academy attempting to use their skills to contribute to collective knowledge and solve problems. Instead, they are confronted with a broken system that focuses on kudos and citations. Until academics recognize that the worth of an individual is not measured by their research and don’t feel the need to mock others to preserve their own egos, the academy will lose talented scholars who choose to spend their careers in a more healthful and productive environment.

I am grateful for the scholars who have taken the time to review my work. These thoughtful critiques have made my research stronger, which should be the goal of the peer review process. With more frequent conversations about challenges and weaknesses within the academy, I look forward to moving toward an improved academic culture that improves both scholarship and the lives of researchers.

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