The end of summer always brings a flurry of peer review, as I work through all of the submissions and resubmissions that editors sent to me over summer break. I often find myself making similar suggestions to authors and thought that compiling them might serve as a resource for article and book authors to work through before they submit something for peer review. This is a little geared toward qualitative researchers in the social sciences (and specifically anthropology), but might be generalizable.
Situate your research. Who are you? Where are you writing from? Why are you writing what you’re writing? What’s your comparative framework? I read a lot of stuff that assumes the US as the comparative framework for the discussion, but doesn’t discuss the US directly or assumes that American social forms and cultural expectations are universals. I would guess that my most recommended text in peer reviews is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Global Transformations for his discussion of “North Atlantic Universals.” (There are people who read that book and it shapes everything they do; and then there are people who don’t read that book, and…) Beyond that, the critiques of objectivity that came out of feminist science studies in the 1980s are still true and you can’t ignore them by not situating yourself in relation to your research–the effect is that a paper comes across as trying to tell an ahistorical story that might strive toward universalism. All research, whatever its context, is necessarily historically situated and explaining why something is important to research in this moment is critical in framing the contribution of the work to its audience.
That theoretical concept has a more complicated history and set of usages than you’re letting on. Literature review sections don’t give authors a ton of space to develop their engagement with key ideas in the field, but if there are multiple genealogies of a concept, be sure to address each of them and spell out their differences. As an example, I am often reading manuscripts that engage with the affect literature–but they only address one side of it (Silvan Tompkins or post-Deleuzian materialism) and make assumptions about the interconnections between the two schools. The same goes with “relations” and “interdependence” and so many more concepts. I might be especially persnickety, but I imagine that anyone deep in a theoretical literature that you’re engaging with will want some equal time paid to each of the represented traditions of thought–even, and especially, if you disagree with them. Detailing those distinctions is a good way to ensure that one’s contributions are well spelled out. And if you think there’s only one genealogy to a concept you’re using, take the time to make sure!
Diversify your citations, please. It’s well established at this point–thanks to Cite Black Women and Catherine Lutz’s work on the “erasure of women’s writing“–that women and minority scholars are cited at lower rates (and in different ways) than men, and especially white men. Checking one’s bibliography to ensure that there is significant representation of non-men (and non-white men) is a first step toward more inclusive citation practices. Even more importantly, working through the literature review and argumentation to ensure that non-white, non-men are being engaged with as part of the theoretical scaffolding of the paper is critical. This may require reframing the contribution of the paper, but the process of addressing what’s happening in other scholarly circles ensures that the work will reach broader audiences.
The evidence/argumentation ratio is askew. This tends to be a problem that I associate with early publications on a project (which can happen at any career phase). When an author is too close to the project and really swamped by the details, they tend to put too much evidence into a paper and don’t do enough work to motivate the evidence in relation to the argument; when people are on the other end of a project, they tend to put too little evidence in and too much argumentation. In the former case, it seems to be because the connections between the evidence and the argument are assumed by the author and they don’t take the time to clearly detail how the evidence and argument relate. They also tend to put in more evidence than an argument tends to need–in most articles the ratio is probably something like 1/3 argument, 2/3 evidence. This is something that people forget late in a project, when they’ve been writing about something for several years and have come to feel that a claim has become common sense–but still need to provide some evidence for a novice reader. This can all change based on the audience, but as a general rule of thumb, if the introduction is getting too long–or if it’s too short–something is out of whack.
Remember your audience. Do people need to know this? Asking that question about any evidentiary section or discussion of literature is always helpful in reducing the amount of extraneous and digressive stuff in a manuscript. Where you’re seeking to publish something will necessarily shape who your audience is; if it’s a subfield or niche journal or book list, you can make more assumptions about your audience than if you’re submitting something for a much more general audience. Niche audiences will also be more keen on the nitty-gritty of the evidentiary details of your research. You can’t know who you’re actual audience will be, but if you submit something to a general journal or book list, expect to be read by peer reviewers who have no intrinsic interest in the evidence itself, whereas niche reviewers will be more likely to care about the details. As a peer reviewer, I try and make sure I’m wearing the right hat for the peer review project and work to ensure that I’m playing specialist or generalist as needed to make the right kinds of recommendations for an author.
Hopefully these suggestions provide a quick reference for making sure that a piece of writing is ready for peer review. I don’t always follow my own suggestions, so this might also be a reminder to myself to pay more attention to these elements in my own writing… If you have common peer review suggestions you make, feel free to share them in the comments.