The problem of ‘reviewer 2’

If you’ve ever written a scholarly article that’s been peer reviewed, you’ll know all the jokes about ‘reviewer 2’ and their dissatisfaction with your writing. But surely there’s a better way?

I’m thinking about this because I’ve just had an experience of the exact opposite. I’m working on revisions for an article soon to be published where the reviewer was not only generous, but they provided a thoughtful, insightful critique with many useful suggestions- and not one nasty comment! This is an all to rare occurrence in academic publishing in my experience, not because I’m a bad writer (the review I mention above is the type I experience regularly in my popular writing work), but because for some reason my ‘reviewer 2’ usually sees their job as breaking me down.

Interestingly I see a clear split between reviewers from the northern hemisphere and ones that are more geographically local (Australia/New Zealand- as far as I know I’ve never had a reviewer from South America or southern Africa…). The reviewers in the northern hemisphere always seem more interested in what I have to say, and while I’ve had negative critiques, it’s been rare that any of them have gotten on their hobby horses to tell me in the most negative terms that my research/writing is a waste of space and/or this is not the article they would have written.

Southern hemisphere however, is another matter. When I’m dealing with academics in my own backyard (many of whom I can easily work out who they are from their comments), I find the inverse is true. I get negative comments like you wouldn’t believe. I even have some repeat offenders (it’s a small community)- and I do mean offenders. Of course the most ironic thing is that I’ll probably never confront them about it when I see them at the next conference we’re both at because of the illusion of blind peer review so I’m not supposed to have guessed that the person being cordial to me in person has torn my writing and research skills to shreds. Yeah. That only works if the person in question doesn’t say things that reveal their identity, or keep telling me to cite certain works that, oh gosh, this person happened to write (if it was relevant to my article, I would have cited it…guess what? It wasn’t relevant!).

A recurring problem I have with one particular reviewer is that they always want me to link my writing about the New Zealand jazz scene back to the Australian scene. This person has this idea that the New Zealand scene was/is just an extension of the Australian scene because there was a lot of crosspollination. As you can imagine, this is not my take on it while there are a lot of crossovers it’s not the same place or the same circumstances, or even the same ethnic mixes involved. Possibly the worst review I’ve ever had was from this reviewer on an article where I was discussing the first wholly NZ produced jazz recording. Asides from the annoying grandstanding (‘I’m a renowned academic of x years standing’, etc.- yes that’s an actual quote), they wanted me to talk about it in the context of the Australian jazz scene because that’s where the recording industry for the region was at the time. It makes me wonder if they actually understood what I’d written at all, because that was so very much not my point, nor my thesis.

Venting aside, my problem as a writer and editor is that such reviews do no one any good. I have withdrawn articles from publication because of ‘reviewer 2’ problems, which have been compounded by editorial teams going ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. It’s really not useful for anyone and is quite destructive for particularly younger researchers getting their work out there. The main problem, as I see it is that reviewers and sometimes even editorial teams are volunteers who don’t necessarily know how to do the job well. I’ve come across plenty of academics who believe that the only way to critique a person’s work is to tear it down, because that’s what happened to them, and plenty of editorial teams go along with it for the same reasons- not to mention a certain amount of ‘hands off policy’ because of the ideals of peer review.

Contrasting this with the non-academic publications I’ve worked with and one and all have a ‘no knees to the groin’ policy (either spoken or unspoken) for reviewers and editors. You are allowed to not like the writing, you may disagree with how the article has been written, but there are two points to remember: this is not your article- if you want to write an article on the same topic, go for it, but it’s not up to you to decide whether an article is ‘worthy’ just because someone has taken a different approach from what you would have. The second point is to be kind to your fellow human and be generous with your time and insights. Your job as a reviewer or editor is not to tear people down but to help them craft the best version of their article.

This second attitude is something I would like to see more from academic publishing, rather than the one that suffers from all the complaints and sarcastic jokes out there on social media. Even when an article is patently not suitable for publication (bad research, incomprehensible writing, etc.), as human beings we should have a care for the person on the other end of the review and try to help them, not tear them down. Remember you can be critically tough without being, well, awful.

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