Sunday, December 10, 2006

Perils of reviewing

I've just finished reading that manuscript--you remember: the one that apparently follows a Flavian methodology, whatever that might be--for Big Journal in My Field. And hoo-boy, is it bad. I suspect that the editor may have sent it to me not so much because its topic and method overlap with my own, but because it was such an obviously bad piece of work that he didn't want to trouble a more established scholar with the thing. This is fine by me (especially if I can convince the editor, by my promptness, thoroughness, etc., to send me stuff to review in the future!), but it does raise some questions.
First: who sends an essay to a journal without page numbers? Seriously. Thirty-odd pages, no numbers.

Second: who does such a bad job of proofreading that there are typos on nearly every page? And I'm not talking just about errors that one's eye might keep skipping over, like typing "is" for "if," but errors where the sentence was obviously partly rewritten but not double-checked, so that several words are missing or different version of the same verb are left sitting side by side. Or where the author has left blank spaces for the page numbers for a couple of citations. . . but never come back to fill them in.
I mean, okay. I have an editorial background and I'm anal anyway, but in this case these sloppy errors are indicative of the quality of the whole, which isn't even grad-student-y so much as it is undergrad-y: the essay is completely unbalanced, doing shit like providing 10 pages of not-at-all-relevant background information before giving (I'm not kidding) 3 pages of analysis of the supposedly important text that that background info was setting up. The author also has a penchant for just dropping in quotations from famous scholars--quotations that are appropriate enough, but that the author doesn't comment on or adapt or modify, but leaves to speak for themselves (even when those quotations were originally about something, uh, different than whatever he's using them to prove).

There is, however, the germ of an interesting idea here. I'm not sure that that idea is true, or provable, or maybe even ultimately all that interesting, but some part of it is, I think, original to the author. So I'm trying to write a review that both says NO WAY NO HOW to the journal editor, but that doesn't totally crush the author. If the essay were completely reoriented to focus on its best 10%, and to actually make its one rather interesting argument, it could be publishable (somewhere, though probably not in this particular journal).

It's a tough line to walk. I feel real compassion for the author, but I'm also just astonished at how bad some of this material is. I believe that it's important for the author to get feedback on the specific flaws in his approach so that he can correct them, but as I'm detailing those flaws I'm aware that I'm taking a kind of pleasure in doing so--and I don't want it to be about me and my enjoyment of whatever minor power I have now that I'm on the other side.

The other thing that's making this difficult is that I know who the author is. When the editor emailed me, he identified the author by name, even though in the editor's actual cover letter and on the essay itself none of that information is provided. This seems to me a breach of the usual blind author/blind reviewer process, which itself makes me uncomfortable--but not so uncomfortable that I didn't immediately Google the author. I discovered that he's a year or two ahead of me on the tenure track, at an institution where I also applied for a job--indeed, I'm pretty sure that he's in the very position that I applied for. This isn't something that makes me envious (the school is more or less equivalent to my own institution), but having that kind of information makes my task as a reviewer both easier and harder.

On the one hand, I know that the author is young, but not a grad student, has presented at some important conferences, but appears not yet to have published anything, and those facts make it easier for me to pitch my comments appropriately. On the other hand, there's also that background *buzz buzz* in my head of, "How the hell did he get that job? How did he even get his dissertation approved?" and all that is not conducive to kindly comments.

In the end, the easiest approach for me has been to pretend that he's a smart undergraduate who has just brought me his first draft of his senior thesis--in other words, that he's someone whose intelligence I believe in, who has the time and the skills to improve, but who also needs some very stern guidance just now.


Escalus said...

I personally find deep satisfaction in the knowledge that he's on the tenure track. I mean, he might not be there for long, but that he made it that far gives me hope.

Anonymous said...

wow. that is so bad. perhaps he submitted it so that he can have something on his CV for some sort of annual review that says "in review". and he knows it was bad?

that is my hope, but still, lame. i think your approach from your last pp is a good plan.

Anonymous said...

I reviewed an article last year for big important interdisciplinary journal that was like that. I'm not sure if the author was in my particular discipline, but the topic was closely related to mine. It was absolutely the worst piece of writing I have ever seen! Quotes thrown in with no set-up or connection, and often misused, "analysis" based on misreading of the sources, at least three different arguments in different parts of the article, completely unconnected, etc. Any student, at whatever level, who handed in such tripe would have been in big trouble, but the idea that it was someone with a degree and a t-t job was pretty mind-boggling. (The editor did not tell me who it was, but there are so few people working on this particular topic that it was easy to figure out.) And the grammar was so bad, it was almost as if the author was not a native English speaker, although s/he is! On the one hand, I was really upset that this person had a t-t job when I don't, but on the other, it made me much more confident about my own work. I don't feel like nearly as big an imposter about my own publications!

Truewit said...

I do some reviewing for a journal, so I have a lot to say about all this. But I also have to write a book in the next, oh, six weeks, so I'm going to keep it brief for now. First off, at least 50% of what I read falls into the same category of the essay you're describing here. Germ of an interesting idea, terrible execution, completely unpublishable. If I feel like there's reason to be encouraging with the author (and that's not always the case), then I divide my comment into two very clearly marked paragraphs: one for the editorial board of the journal which usually includes a brief synopsis, my best guess at what the actual intentions of the essay were, and a quick list of the most pressing evidence for its failure, dispensing with all diplomacy; and one for the author him or herself which usually reads more like a comment for a peer (I try not to get condescending, although it is in my nature to do just that, sadly): some praise, a few suggestions for further reading -- or any reading in certain desperate cases -- and an honest, and hopefully specific discussion of the essays weaknesses. Specificity (i.e., "on page 4, you argue X, but a thousand other people have told us Y") is time-consuming, but, I think, most useful characteristic of a rejection letter. I have received one sentence rejection notes, and I have received five pages of revision suggestions. I try to remember how angry those short ones made me, and how overwhelmed by gratitude I felt when someone I didn't know took the time to engage with what I had done.

Anyway, take heart in the clarity of your response. It's those "could go either way" essays that are the real killers.

Horace said...

I think this post suggests the caprice of both the job market and the publishing market, since this writer is probably as likely to be reviewing pieces as you are.

But your humane approach to commenting can only earn you good kharma from the publishing gods.