In my almost twenty years of eligibility, I’ve been called for jury duty once in my entire life. I was a student at Illinois State University at the time, and I was registered to vote at my parents’ address 140 miles away, which meant I was excused. I have yet to be called for jury service in New Zealand, although my colleagues tell me that having a PhD does not make me likely to be tossed out as a juror. Once we get some municipal buildings in Christchurch, I’m sure I’ll get the call.

Peer review is academia’s version of jury duty, and as is so often the case, the humanities Ivory Tower Gang (Jimmy Breslin’s great unfinished novel) behaves sub-optimally. It’s nice to see Kevin Haggerty explain how to do your duty when it comes to peer review. I have two points about his piece that are fairly simple.

First, Haggerty appeals to a sense of duty to others:

A scholar’s career can hang on the fate of one significant publication, and if that piece stalls interminably at the review stage it can be a professional disaster. If you decline, inform the editor quickly, as it is unfair to expect an editor to wait weeks for a response, only to then have the invitation declined (or never answered at all). Editors always appreciate it when, if you decline a request, you recommend other reviewers.

I agree with everything here, but I’m amazed that this needs to be said. That academics find curious this notion of “responding quickly” and/or “meeting a deadline” is no accident. Continuing directly from the above, Haggerty writes,

After agreeing to do the review, you will be sent the manuscript or details about how to access it online. The papers are confidential, so do not reference the submission and absolutely do not draw upon its findings or data for your own work. You will also be given a date by which to complete your review—usually one to three months. Immediately mark that deadline on your calendar and make sure you finish on time. If your situation changes and you have to cancel or delay your review, let the editor know immediately in case a replacement must be found.

A couple of plot sequence points create the illusion of a buffer, but what’s happening in this section of the piece is that Haggerty must repeatedly tell grown ups “if you agree to do a job, you should do it on time.” The usual statements about what we expect of our students apply here.

A second point that Haggerty raises stirs up a mess of issues related to research faculty, peer review and research prestige, and the invisible (exploited) teaching staff. Once again appealing to a sense of duty, Haggerty suggests

Given that most (but not all) journals aim to secure three anonymous reviews, you should aim to review a minimum of three manuscripts for every article you publish. Unfortunately, intensifying professional demands means that editors spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to find willing, competent, and prompt peer reviewers.

I don’t doubt that this is true – but I can’t work up much sympathy. I always thought that the reason that universities need to exploit TAs and adjuncts was to provide plenty of time for research faculty to do their thing. Peer review is part of research.

I make no claims to glorious originality, but I’ll repeat a couple simple suggestions. Why not treat “peer reviewer” as a sort of (to use the NZ-PBRF terminology) a research output? That is to say, include the reader reports in a tenure and promotion file and take their academic value seriously. Sure, there’s some lip service to the importance of service now, but no one actually acts on it. Please do so. I imagine that a stodgy old mid-to-late career professor could get re-energised by immersing him/herself in the critical conversation by taking on a “full-time” peer review gig, likely split amongst the journals in his/her field, and return to research with new ideas about the exciting/decaying state of the field.

As per usual, my other suggestion looks to adjuncts. Why not trust adjuncts to do it? I can even make a proposal that blows smoke up tenure/permanent faculty asses, acting like they actually believe the anti-union “apprentice model” thinking. Adjuncts could function as the first reader, perhaps weeding out the worst, but a decision to publish would require a “real” faculty member supervisor.

All of this presumes that we agree that academia is a calling, rather than a job. Because the hegemonic position in academia, at least where I’ve studied and worked, is the calling, none of the peripheral stuff like peer review is codified. As Haggerty q-and-a’s it:

Why write a peer review of a manuscript? Because it is part of our scholarly responsibilities. You will not be paid and it will take time away from your own work. But academic publishing depends on peer reviewers volunteering their time. You have undoubtedly benefited, or will benefit in the future, from this arrangement.

I imagine university administrators are happy to keep it that way, because were we to start counting the hours required for the maintenance of the peer review system, madness would surely follow.

jury box image from Otter Tail County, MN Courts

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