Monday, March 14, 2016

Meeting minima

I've been reviewing more article manuscripts lately, which means I've been thinking harder about the intricacies of "fit."

We all know that some work just isn't right for a particular venue, though some instances of bad fit are easier to discern than others (no one, surely, would submit an essay on Ben Jonson to American Literature). I had one essay that I thought was a good fit for a particular journal that didn't even make it to peer review, and my book manuscript was summarily rejected by as many presses as were interested in it.

I was bad at predicting those outcomes, but I wasn't upset by them: I trust editors to know their audience and their market and to have a better feel for how my work aligns with their areas of strength. As an external reviewer, though, it's a little harder. There are some journals that I know intimately and where I have no difficulty discerning whether a submission fits--or, more to the point, where I know exactly the kind of suggestions for a conditional acceptance, or a revise-and-resubmit, that will help the essay pass muster. But other journals I just don't know as well. I may have a general sense that a given journal is, let's say, a B/B+ venue--perfectly credible, but not a brass-ring achievement--but what does that actually mean, in terms of the minimum standard for a given submission?

I consider argumentative and organizational clarity to be essential, no matter how modest or ambitious the claim, and every essay needs some degree of critical framing. But if the author is making only a small intervention, or is raising an interesting historical context without doing much with it--well, obviously that's not enough for a top-tier journal. But is it enough for Journal X?

Or to put it more finely: if I think the claim is a little lackluster and I push for more, am I doing a service--encouraging deeper thinking and helping to maintain high standards--or am I placing a burden on both author and journal--depriving, let's say, a grad student of a line on her vita that would materially help her on the job market and a journal that might be struggling for submissions of a basically solid if minor contribution?

In practice, a lot of this gets sorted out before an essay ever makes its way to an external reviewer: editors filter out the completely unacceptable; good advisors direct their students to journals they think are a reasonable match for their work; authors have a vested interest in knowing their venue and getting the fit right. I've never had an essay that I truly thought could have gone either way.

But I still worry about this each time I'm asked to read an essay by a journal that I don't have a good feel for, and I struggle to articulate exactly what should count as "good enough" for most journals in the big, broad middle.

Maybe, like obscenity, we just know it when we see it.


Historiann said...

You don't have that much power as an outside reviewer--you can't unilaterally "depriv[e]. . . a grad student of a line on her vita that would materially help her on the job market and a journal that might be struggling for submissions of a basically solid if minor contribution." It takes a village, Flavia! That is, an author can submit her article to another journal; an editor can either agree with you or reject your advice and publish anyway. Etc.

I've been doing a lot of press and journal article reviews too lately, and my attitude is to try to understand the goals the author has set and to push hir a little to make hir work more significant. I always sign my reviews so that the editor and author know where I'm coming from. Like everyone, I've got my own agenda--I don't stand behind the fiction of Absolute Scholarly Merit (as if!). I also offer only positive, constructive advice. If my comments are useful to authors and editors--and from what I hear they usually are--then fine. If not--that's their prerogative to reject or override my views.

Flavia said...


Well, yes and no. (Re: not having that much power.) Usually there's another external reviewer, and an editor can, indeed, always override my opinion. But we've all had articles stuck in peer review hell, fairly or unfairly, and I do think it's important to be mindful of the fact that negging an essay might mean the author doesn't get an acceptance *when he or she needs it*. It might take another six months or a year to place it.

Obviously, that's not a reason to accept (and in a blind-review process one never knows what the situation of the author is, anyway), but junior scholars, especially, are really on the clock.

I remember now your mentioning that you sign all your reviews--that's a stance I admire! I do try to be wholly positive and affirmative, focusing on the strengths and potential of a piece even when rejecting it, but have never signed a review. I might consider it, though, for the reasons you mention.

undine said...

The journals I review for have a double-blind policy, so signing the review doesn't seem to be an option. One journal does have a "comments for the author" section separate from the "comments for the editor" section, though.

Various places--okay, the Chronicle boards--suggest that nothing is ever really anonymous, but I honestly don't know whose article I'm reading, and I don't know who's reviewing mine.

As Historiann says, it really is a village responsible for this. Pushing the author to do a more in terms of framing is a service, I think, because the next time she will raise that question herself and take the paper to the next level before sending it out.

Psycgirl said...

I like that you are considering how reviews impact careers, especially for grad students and/or junior (untenured) colleagues. Time is very important to both graduating/the job market and tenure. I wish more reviewers considered this like you do!