The Ethics of Peer Review in the Age of Adjunctification

Academics inhabit a world in which the difference between having an article published or not can mean the difference between landing a tenure track job or not. Later in an academic’s career, the difference between one or two articles and a few might mean the difference in earning tenure or not. Peer reviewers are often in the position to make decisions that can change people’s lives. So why does peer review often take so long — months and sometimes years? Committing to timely peer review is a vital ethical resolution that might significantly change the academic landscape.

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Recently, peer review has become the subject of some discussion in the academic blogosphere. Some academics have argued for the ability to track versions of an article after publication, so that corrections could be made to online versions after publication, thereby leading to commenters providing positive rather than negative reviews. Others have suggested that a quid-pro-quo approach might lead to more timely and careful reviews. Regardless of the overall structure of how academic publishing happens — and I do think online, easily amended articles is a great idea and might significantly change citational practices — every peer reviewer could make a change for the better by committing to turning in a peer review within two weeks of being asked to review a manuscript.

Two weeks might seem arbitrary, but here’s my reasoning: if it takes longer than two weeks to get around to doing something, it usually takes a very long time. That is, most of us are pretty good at scheduling in the short term — a week or two — but when it comes to scheduling beyond the next month, things get nebulous. When an article manuscript falls into that nebulous beyond-the-next-month period, it’s probably going to get lost in the shuffle. And when it comes time to read it, it’ll probably be because an editorial assistant is hounding you and not because you scheduled to read it in two months’ time. This means I’m always scheduling a peer review, even if I don’t have a manuscript on hand. If I don’t get asked to do a peer review, then it’s no big deal. But I’m ready if I am asked and don’t feel put out by the work.

Elsewhere, I’ve suggested the qualities that make for a productive peer review — generally, it boils down to helping the author make the most of the manuscript at hand. It might not be suitable for the journal that you’re reviewing for, but that’s usually up to the editor to decide. For the reviewers, the question is: what would it take for this manuscript to be published as an article in this journal? Answering that question might take a couple of hours of work — reading the article and writing up comments — and I would guess most of us spend two hours a day reading the news, checking social media, playing video games, or otherwise distracting ourselves from work. That can all wait; people’s careers can’t. Why not just commit to using that time for one’s peers, and when taking a break from one’s work, working for someone else?

We’ve all had long waits for peer reviews to come in, confusing editorial recommendations, and egregious publishing experiences, which has led me to develop these peer review practices, which might work for you too:

1) I always turn a review around in 2 weeks or less. If I don’t know the journal, I’ll take a few minutes to scan a couple articles to see if there are particular conventions in the journal’s published articles, just so I’m on the right page. I usually read a manuscript one day, taking notes while I do so, and then write the review the next day. If particular concerns nag me over the day, I’ll go back and read specific sections of the article again, just to make sure I read it right. My reviews tend to be 1-2 single-spaced pages, and focus on what it will take to make the article publishable. No snark, no random free association. Even if a manuscript is publishable as is, I still take the time to write up a review of what the author has done right, just so if some other reviewer has a different opinion, the editor and author have a sense that at least some readers are on the author’s side.

2) I never agree to review more than one manuscript at a time. If something comes in that I really want to review, I quickly review the manuscript already in my peer review queue and then agree to review the new manuscript.

3) If I can’t turn a review around in 2 weeks, I just say no to the invitation to review. Similarly, if the manuscript is way outside of my wheelhouse, I’ll also say no. But whenever I say no, I try and send the editorial assistant 3-4 names of other people who might be tapped for a review (no need to thank me, friends!); often, junior faculty aren’t really on the peer review map until they have a few publications under their belt, so it can be a benefit to both the reviewer and reviewee to send a manuscript to an untapped junior scholar (doing peer review makes people better writers… trust me on this).

4) If I’ve agreed to review the manuscript and find that I can’t be a kind peer reviewer for some reason, I get in touch with the editor and ask him or her to find a different reviewer. If this happens in the first two weeks that an article is out for review, it’s no big deal for the editor to turn around and find a new reviewer. But if it’s three months into the review process, it’s very harmful to the author of the manuscript, since now they have to begin the waiting process all over again…

Even if your final assessment is that a total overhaul is necessary, knowing that sooner rather than later will allow the author to get on with the necessary work — which might mean finding another journal. In a work context where people have very little time to focus on their own research and writing, being able to schedule necessary revisions is critical.

You might be the fastest of a set of reviewers, and so things will slow down while the editor waits for another review or two to come in. But if everyone starts reviewing more quickly, the whole machine of peer review should speed up noticeably for everyone. Not only will the academically precarious benefit, but so should scholars throughout the academic life course. If you’ve ever experienced a slow review process, commit to making it better for others by being a timely reader. Or at least refrain from agreeing to read something you don’t have the time for.

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 5 — The Introduction & Argument

It might seem a little perverse to wait until the penultimate step to discuss introductions and arguments, but like I mentioned in step 2, it’s often helpful to work through most of the other material in an article manuscript first, so that when you get to the introduction and argument you have a clear sense of what your argument actually is. So, if you’ve worked through steps 1-4, getting down to the brass tacks of your argument should be a lot easier than if you try and start with the argument — which can be daunting and freeze many writers in their tracks…

intro(In case you want to know what my chalkboard writing looks like, here’s the diagram from my alternative spring break.)

Often, in cultural anthropology at least, articles begin with a little ethnographic vignette — some kind of hook to get the reader’s interest piqued. As I mentioned in step 4, these vignettes are usually linked to the cases that make up the evidence in the rest of the article, and tend to be about a page or so long.

A successful introduction — ethnographic vignette or not — should give your reader a sense of why she or he should keep reading within a page or two, and a good rationale to keep reading is a question or quandary that’s of broad appeal, but which you can provide the answer for. So, it might be an ethnographic vignette, or some other compelling set of data posed in a way that begs questions rather than provides answers, or it might be a question about the existing scholarly literature, or a case from popular media or current events (although I tend to think that current events don’t stay current for long…). Regardless of what your introduction is comprised of, it needs to be returned to later in the article — and where you return to it should make sense based on what the introduction is (i.e. if it’s an ethnographic vignette, continue the vignette in one of your cases, if it’s a problem in the literature, return to it in the literature review, etc.).

After you have your reader hooked, what will actually keep the reader reading is a well articulated argument. One of the most critical things is to not bury the lead — which is to say, make sure your argument appears by the end of page two of your article manuscript (which means it will be on page one of your published article). If your argument comes too late, you risk losing your reader, or, at the least, having your reader begin to wonder why they’re reading what they’re reading. A good argument, posed early on, will do a lot of work for you and ensure that your reader keeps reading — so don’t get carried away with your introductory hook.

What makes a good argumentative thesis? That’s probably the hardest part of this whole project, and it really takes time and experience to develop a solid thesis that you can substantiate with your evidence. I can’t tell you specifically what will make a good thesis for you, but I can give you a few guidelines, some of which are going to seem like no-brainers:

First, a good thesis is motivated by your evidence. This might sound totally crazy, but one of the biggest mistakes I see in articles I peer review is that the thesis makes evidentiary claims that aren’t supported by the evidential cases in the article. My sense is that this is due to people writing articles linearly, starting with the introduction and thesis and then moving onward, and failing to bring the cases in line with the thesis. But if you tend to your literature review and cases before turning to your thesis, you should have a clear sense of what your contribution to the literature in your field is and how your evidence relates to it. One way you might start here is by writing a sentence like ‘Based on [Case 1] and [Case 2], we see that X is actually X1,’ where X is a particular theoretical concept or assumption about a region and X1 is your claim about the same. Once you have that clunky sentence in place, you can work on revising it into something a little more eloquent…

Secondly, a good thesis poses causality. I’m using ‘causality’ here in the broadest sense of the term, mostly because I need some kind of shorthand for all of the kinds of interpretive work that you might do and need to embed in a thesis. In fact, you might be talking about causality (‘X is now X1, because of Y’), but it might also be a little more subtle than that (‘Attending to Y shows that X is actually X1.). Try a sentence like one of those, where Y is what you’re focusing on in your cases. If your two cases are different from one another, then you probably have two sentences here to explain the nuances that each of the cases adds to your claims.

Third, a good thesis engages with questions in the existing literature. Since you’ll be tackling the literature that’s relevant in your literature review — which is coming up very quickly — you don’t need to get into fine details here, and you can often get away with theoretical shorthand, i.e. you can just use keywords, as long as you return to them in your literature review. The right keywords will often motivate a reader long enough to get them through the introduction — as long as you sincerely engage with them as theoretical concepts and make it apparent to your reader how the terms relate to your argument.

It’s often difficult to capture all of these qualities in one sentence (and unwise). It’s best to break them up into sentences in their own right, or at least to start that way and work towards integration. In the end, you should have a paragraph — and it might be a short one — that brings all of these concerns together and gives your reader a sense of the stakes of what you’re focusing on and a clear sense of why she or he should give you the next 30 minutes of her or his time. The weaker or less articulated the thesis, the less likely your reader is going to stay motivated for the whole article…

After your thesis paragraph, you should take the time to detail your methodology in a paragraph. This paragraph can be difficult to write — mostly because it’s difficult to be excited about it — but once you have a good methods paragraph, you can copy and paste it with minor variations for every article you write thereafter. A good methods paragraph lays out the duration of the research, where the research was conducted and what those contexts were like, and what the sample size was (which, for cultural anthropologists, is the number of people interviewed, events attended, etc. — the stuff that makes up your cases). This paragraph might also legitimate methodological choices in reference to key theoretical-methods literature, particularly if the methods are unconventional or experimental for the audience of the journal.

After your methods paragraph, you should turn to your literature review. By now, you should have a pretty clear sense of why you’re discussing the literature that’s in your literature review, so working through it again to revise it is worth the time. Given your argument, tighten up your literature review, both cutting some literature that’s no longer relevant to your argument, and also making sure that you’re highlighting what you should be about the literature that you’re keeping.

The last paragraph in your introduction should be a transitional paragraph that lays out the content of the article in relation to your thesis. So, often what you’re doing is moving from the fairly broad claims in your literature review to the specific content of your cases and surveying them in a sentence for each case. But this is all preceded by a recapitulation of your thesis in a shortened form. ‘As I will demonstrate in the following, X is due to Y resulting in X1. This can be seen in Case 1, where X is A. Further, in Case 2, X is B.’ That feels a little symbolic-logicky, but hopefully you get the idea. You should also explain what will occur in your conclusion, so there are no surprises, i.e. ‘In the conclusion, I discuss the implications of X as X1 for [subfield or regional interest].’ Basically, you’re once again motivating your reader to carry on reading the article, and also ensuring that there are no substantial surprises — your reader needs to be able to anticipate everything that’s coming up (without all of the nitty gritty details). Anticipation is motivation.

All told, your introduction should be about 5 pages long (maybe up to 7, but rarely any longer than that). Five pages might seem really short, but a good introduction shouldn’t be too long (it’s an introduction, after all) — anything longer than 7 pages is really going to tax your reader, and she or he will be wondering when they get to the good stuff (outside of your opening couple of paragraphs, your introduction isn’t so much ‘good’ stuff as ‘necessary’ stuff). Strive for brevity, knowing that it will help your reader stay motivated. And, when the peer reviews come back, know that you’ll have a little wiggle room in your introduction to address the concerns of your reviews.

Once you have it all weaved together, adding your new introduction to your cases and conclusion, that’s your article manuscript. Easy, right? Now it’s time for some fine tuning

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 3 — The Literature Review

Okay, so, you’ve identified a journal to target with an article submission, analyzed a model article, and written the provisional conclusion to your article — now it’s time for step 3, writing your literature review. Literature reviews are an easy thing to malign, as they seem simultaneously pedestrian and Herculean. How can you possibly cite all of the relevant literature? And how can you make a literature review anything more than an uninteresting list of ‘necessary’ citations?

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Before I address those questions, it’s important to point out that a solid literature review does a lot of work for you as an anonymous author; a good literature review can allay many reviewer concerns and make a ‘revise and resubmit’ into an ‘accept with revisions.’ If you can position your work in its relevant fields — which are presumably fields relevant to the journal you’ve selected — even if there are problems with your presentation of evidence, the thoroughness of your analysis, or the structure of the manuscript, it should be obvious to the reviewers and the editor that there’s significant merit in your scholarship. Which is all to say that a solid literature review makes evident that you know the field and that your work is worth a reviewer’s time, even if the article isn’t in tip-top shape.

So there are two rules moving forward: write what you know, and keep it short. With those in mind, let’s talk about structure first:

In many respects, what you’re doing is duplicating content from your conclusion — at least in terms of citations. And you’ll be following a similar model, in that you’ll start by addressing literature in the subfield or geographic area of interest, and then shift registers into more theoretical territory. All told, your literature review should probably be between 3-5 paragraphs long, and usually only 3-4 paragraphs (if it gets too long, it either comes across as too anxious or too grad-studenty). I don’t think there’s a real prescription on which order these paragraphs should come in, but they should be organically arranged, and move your reader from your introduction into your cases — so it often makes sense to review topical or geographically-similar literature as the last paragraph (which I’ll explain more shortly).

Paragraph 1 starts with relevant literature in your subfield. Who are the people most immediately related to your topic? You should have already considered who these people are in writing your conclusion, but now’s the time to name them and to put them into direct conversation with your concerns. And, in so doing, what you’ll also be pointing out is how your work is different from theirs. So, for example, if I’m writing about sleep for a medical anthropology journal, this is the paragraph about how other people have approached sleep within anthropology and related fields.

Paragraph 2 then start to scale up and position your article in more theoretical literature, often most closely related to your field. So, following my example, this might be the paragraph about medicalization or some other medical-anthropology related concern. It should show your reader that you know the relevant theoretical literature in your field, as well as an awareness of the debates in the field and how you’re adding to them.

Then, paragraph 3 moves to the even more macro level in thinking about the theoretical aspects of your argument. So, continuing my example, this might be about subjectivity or temporality or whatever — something that’s of more general interest to readers in your discipline. Again, it should make evident to your reader that you have a clear sense of the debates and leading figures in the field, and these people may or may not be reflected elsewhere in your literature review.

Paragraph 4 scales down to regional literature, as a way to segue into your empirical evidence. But, if you’re writing for an area studies journal, you’ll probably flip the subfield and regional paragraphs (so 1 & 4 can be flipped). It’s important for this last paragraph to serve as a transition for your audience because it’s often the last or second-to-last paragraph before your case presentation begins — so keep that in mind as you structure them for your audience. If it’s for a subfield journal, this paragraph often includes things like: ‘when medical anthropologists study [context X] they focus on things like [phenomena A, B & C].’ And then you say something like: ‘Rarely do scholars focus on [your topic], and doing so shows that [reiterate thesis].’ If you’re writing for a regional journal, and this is your first paragraph, it tends to follow the same format, although it often starts with ‘Scholars of [context X] have highlighted the importance of [phenomena A, B & C].’ Which is followed by something like, ‘By focusing on [your topic] we see how concerns about [phenomena A, B or C] is complicated by [your approach].’

Bear in mind that your article manuscript will probably be sent to one or more people that you mention in your literature review. If an editor is looking for peer reviewers for you and they don’t know specialists in your field or who work on your topic or in your geographical area, it’s standard practice to look at someone’s bibliography and pick reviewers through citations. It’s not going to be the biggest names in the field, so it’s likely to be the people who work in your topical area, and probably more junior people (who agree to do things like peer review articles). Given that, it’s important to be even handed in your literature review — don’t pick any fights, unless you’re ready to pursue them.

Let’s get back to my two rules, mentioned above: write what you know and keep it short. A short, 6,000-8,000 word article manuscript, probably has room for 25-30 bibliographic entries. Most of these are going to be listed in your literature review and introduction. That means — doing simple math — that you’re citing about 8 people in each of the paragraphs listed above.

You might be tempted to spend a week of your life identifying recent scholarship relevant to your literature review — but don’t. You won’t get dinged for not knowing something published in the last 24 months (even by the person who wrote it, most likely), but you will get funny looks for avoiding to mention key texts published within the last 5-10 years. You should be familiar with this older stuff, and it might have even been the basis for your qualifying exams. So, write what you know and don’t worry about what you don’t know — if there’s something really critical, your reviewers or the editor will point it out to you. And, plus, you’ll have time to freshen up on your reading while the article is out for review…

And, as I’ve suggested throughout, keep it short. Four paragraphs is plenty long enough, and 25-30 citations is going to cover most of your bases. Try and write your literature review in a day. Maybe there will be a couple missing citations, but you should be able to regurgitate key citations and their respective summaries pretty quickly — it’s only about 700 words, after all. You can always go back and add more later, once you work through the whole manuscript. (I’ve come to believe that there should be no citation surprises: if you’re going to cite someone in your conclusion, cite them in the literature review too.)

There are exceptions to this generic form — like arguments against the literature, where the whole article is a deep rehearsal of the literature and its problems as based on your research — but the exceptions are generally for later in one’s career, when you’re ready to make enemies and defend yourself… And you have a reputation that allows you to make such grand claims.

Back to where I started: hopefully a literature review no longer feels like a Herculean task. It should be short, and it should be based on what you already know. Now, as far as not being dull? That’s a more difficult thing to gauge. It’s okay if it’s a little boring, because it’s relatively short and readers are ready to be bored for a page or two. But if you’re putting the literature together in compelling ways — generally in asking questions of a topic or set of theories that have yet to be asked (which can be as simple as focusing on a topic that hasn’t been attended to closely) — then you should have a highly readable and maybe even exciting literature review. It takes time, so plan on your first few literature reviews being a little more on the ‘necessary’ and a little less on the exciting side of things.

The next step? Your evidence.