My Most Common Peer Review Suggestions, Compiled

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.

Diversifying the Network

In one of the first meetings I had with my dissertation adviser, Karen-Sue Taussig, she recommended that I read Catherine Lutz’s “The Gender of Theory” and “The Erasure of Women’s Writing in Sociocultural Anthropology.” (If you haven’t read them, go read them right now.) Lutz makes two interrelated points: despite the number of women working in sociocultural anthropology, they tend to get cited less frequently than men, and when they are cited, they’re cited as providing empirical evidence that supports an argument rather than theory that can be tested or employed. (And if you think that was a problem of the 1980s and 1990s, you can read the follow-up, “The Problem of Gender and Citations Re-raised in New Research Study” [although the link doesn’t seem to be working…] and then mull over what’s really going on in pieces like this.) At the age of 25, and a few years into my graduate studies, I might have been in just the right frame of mind for such an intervention. It resulted, immediately, in a hyperawareness of my citational practices — and shaped the kinds of questions and projects I wanted to pursue.

One of those projects has been steadily diversifying the network, both personally and professionally. In 2017, I was asked to comment on an early version of Nick Kawa, José A. Clavijo Michelangeli, Jessica L. Clark, Daniel Ginsberg, and Christopher McCarty’s “The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities,” and reading its final version was a stark reminder of just how much work is to be done. If you ever wanted evidence of that, here’s Kawa et al.’s data rendered in one handy image:

kawa social network us anthro.png
A network analysis of Ph.D. placements of tenure-track faculty based on where their degree originates and where they were hired. See more here.

Here are some practices to consider if you want to disrupt the reproductive tendencies of the discipline at every level. My guiding principle is that power is meant to be subverted, and whatever meagre institutional and reputational power I have should be used to make more inclusive social and institutional networks.

Every year when I’m pulled back to the American Anthropological Association meetings, I make sure that I participate in two panels. One has to include a majority of people who I’ve never been on a panel with before; and one has to include at least 50% recent Ph.D.s (or in-progress ones) and contingent faculty or “independent scholars.” Sometimes both of the panels meet both of the criteria. I’m not sure that I have much draw on my own, but whatever draw I have should be shared with less secure or established scholars than myself. Beyond that, I want to be exposed to ideas and research that I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I can read my friends’ work any time, but curating a panel with strangers on a topic of my choice lets me engage with new content and publicizes it for others. It also means that my network grows in these AAA-related spurts, and I’ve watched my network permanently diversify over the years through this practice.

If you keep having the same conversation with the same people, something is wrong. Even if those people are diverse, if the network stabilizes, it’s not being as inclusive as it could be. It can be hard to exclude old friends from conferences, workshops, special issues of journals, whatever, but if the collective project is to diversify the network, they should be doing the same thing to you. And this leaves you open to be included in other people’s efforts. Stale networks are pretty obvious, both from the inside and the outside. My guiding rules are a place to start to disrupt reproductive tendencies, and I’m sure that employing them will help refine a system that works for other people.

If someone asks me to do something and I can’t, I suggest a junior scholar or someone at a non-elite institution (or both). If I can’t do something — a talk, peer review, a conference panel, whatever — I always try and make sure that I provide at least three names of people who might fit the role. My preference is always for younger people than me, although I’m very sensitive to my ability to say “no” and the obligations younger scholars fell toward saying “yes.” That said, I will commit to doing something even as over-commitment if I know that the next person to be asked is someone who isn’t as diversity-focused as I am. Better a white person with an eye towards diversification than one who isn’t diversity focused (or at least that’s how I console myself).

I don’t just count citations; I also consider how a citation is being used. This is true for syllabuses and publications. I tend to start syllabuses by piling up books and articles that I’m sure I want to include in a class, and at that point make sure that the foundation of the class is diverse (i.e. at least 50% books by women, with attention to minority status ensuring that 50% of the books are also from authors from underrepresented backgrounds). After I put the rest of the syllabus together, I go through it and make sure that it’s diverse throughout. In cases where I have to include a dead, white, male writer, I make sure that the texts around that person are by other kinds of writers. I tend to make sure that 60% of a syllabus is comprised of non-white male contributors. I also try and make sure that theory and evidence are supplied equally by all of the contributors to the syllabus. (If you think that teaching the canon means only teaching dead white guys [or living ones], just remember that it’s not in the canon if it hasn’t reached the point that non-white, non-male scholars are discussing it!)

In terms of publications, I tend to make a first pass through the manuscript citing as few people as I possibly can. Part of that is pragmatic — I don’t want to get hung up on inserting citations, and if there’s a lot of new stuff I’m planning to cite, I prefer to do all of the data entry and management during the revision process. But the other part is that I learned in the past that I over-cite. I would tend to cite too many things and then have to remove them to reach the word limit I was shooting for. I found that having to remove citations was harder than having to put them in afterwards, and that working this way helped to see who I really needed to cite. Moreover, it meant that when I was inserting citations, I could be more deliberative about who I was citing for what. Like with my syllabuses, when I do have to cite a dead white guy, I try to ensure that the citations around him are more diverse. And when I have to engage with a lot of white guys, it’s usually because I’m doing some critique…

All of these citational practices are aspirational, and I’m sure that not all of my publications meet the criteria I’ve set for myself over the years. That might be hypocrisy, but it’s also due to requests from peer reviewers and editors to cite certain work and the stark reality that working in some corners of academia means there are limited sets of scholars to engage with. The solution to the latter is to develop frames for one’s work that are capacious and bring in perspectives from feminism, critical race studies, disability studies, class-focused research (not just Marxism), and postcolonial studies. The solution for the former — sometimes — is to just not cite those people, despite requests (which gets easier to do with seniority).

When serving on hiring committees, one of the implications of Kawa et al.’s research is the need to make sure that the committee is institutionally diverse. One sure way to at least contest the dominance of particular departments in the placement of Ph.D. holders into tenure track jobs is to have people who aren’t from those institutions serving on hiring committees. If your department lacks people that fit this criteria, have a faculty member from another department serve in a non-voting, consultative role. I served on a committee like this years ago, and it was helpful because the person from outside of Anthropology couldn’t have cared less about the institutions that people were coming from since his discipline had different elite institutions; he helped to focus other committee members’ attention beyond institutional backgrounds. If that sounds uncomfortable, you could have someone go through all of the applications and redact institutions, people’s names, and acknowledgement sections. (If there isn’t an Adobe macro for this, there should be…)

I’m convinced that underlying a lot of the resistance to change in the academy is a fear of being displaced in the present and the future, especially in the context of fears about the end of the tenure system and job scarcity. Wholesale displacement is unlikely, but some marginalization is inevitable. But that’s in relation to a century and a half of dominance in the university by white, male voices, so it’s relative to total dominance. Incrementalism can get a bad rap, but when the allies in power are faced with their own potential obsolescence, a gradual approach can make important headway while ensuring that the threats to individuals are mitigated. Changing institutions is a long game, and keeping the end point in mind while addressing the concerns of the present is one way to ensure that change will come, however gradual it might be.

These practices are a start towards diversification. If you have other suggestions, post them in the comments or provide links.