So I just finished reading, writing the reader's report for, and submitting the reader's report for a manuscript that I agreed to evaluate for Very Good Journal, and I'm left feeling... Oh, I'm left with a lot of feelings.
First, can I just say that this is service I really, really like. In theory. Even though it's basically invisible. I like reading stuff that may be the Newest Thing in my field, I like feeling like an expert who has something to contribute to scholarship seeing the light of day, and I like feeling like I can offer feedback that writers can actually use.
But. I've done this now exactly two times (for I'm not all that much of an expert), and in both instances I recommended that the articles be rejected. And that kind of nullifies most of what I listed above about liking this kind of service. Because it sucks to know that I may be responsible for somebody not getting a publication. I don't like that at all. And it also sucks to wonder whether my thoughts about the relative publishability of something are fucked up, and to wonder whether I'm being an asshole, and if I am, whether that actually makes editors think that I'm an asshole and so they won't ever ask me to review again. And in the case of the report that I just finished, the journal does double-blind review, and so what if I was an asshole to somebody fancy? (Though I really don't think somebody fancy would have submitted something that cited - or, rather, failed properly to cite - Wikepedia, so that's some small consolation.) To make a long story short, this whole reviewing manuscripts thing for me is bound up with a lot of my own insecurities and problems with dealing with criticism.
See, I hate nothing like a reader's report. Even the good ones make me shudder upon first looking at them. I hate the impersonal tone - "the author offers insightful analysis of x"; "Crazy fails to address y." I hate that feeling of dealing with the suggestions for revision, like I'm attempting to read a map in the dark or like I'm trying to use telepathy to figure out what some ethereal entity wants from me. I hate that feeling that sometimes happens where one wonders whether the person actually read the essay that I wrote (though admittedly, I've only really felt that one time). My problem is not with complying with the comments so much - for I am typically fully willing to change anything I've written in the service of it being published and have no love affair with my sentences or any such thing - but with the fact that the comments exist at all. I hate reading what strangers think about what I've written. Absolutely hate it.
So when I read a manuscript at the request of an editor, I bring all of that baggage with me. And in some ways, that's probably good, because I really am committed to trying to offer practical advice, even if my recommendation is to reject. I care a lot about being a useful reviewer, and I care a lot about offering suggestions that somebody can use going forward.
But so what? Somewhere, some academic, who really did have an interesting idea even if the execution wasn't so grand, is ultimately going to read comments from a hostile reviewer, and that hostile reviewer will be me. Even though I wasn't really hostile: I was disappointed. I so wanted to be able to say, "this is the most fantastic essay in the land! publish away!" But instead, well, I couldn't in good conscience even offer a revise and resubmit. It just wasn't good enough, or so I thought.
But who the hell am I to make that kind of decision? When I look at myself, at my CV, whatever - I still don't feel qualified. I feel like a total fraud. Because sure, I've had some modest success with publication or whatever, but who the hell do I think I am?
I think what makes me feel even more... insecure... about this most recent report is that I've currently got an essay out for review with this journal. And so I imagine getting back reader's reports about my own essay that are as harshly critical of my work as I was of the manuscript that I read. And I imagine the editor reading my report and then getting reports back that my own essay is a piece of garbage and deciding that I'm a bullshit scholar who doesn't know anything. And yes, all of this has nothing to do with the manuscript that I reviewed, but I sure would feel better if I'd already heard back about my own essay. (Apparently one report is already back and the other is overdue; the overdue thing worries me, because I feel like it means that the person hasn't had time to articulate all of the ways in which I suck but with substantial revision could maybe be acceptable, but of course what it probably means is that the person just hasn't bothered to look at it yet and the overdueness means nothing about my work, positive or negative.)
But so the point of all of this is that it is totally weird to be in a position where one is called upon to review the work of others when one is subject to the same review of one's own work. If you let yourself think too much about it - which I don't recommend people do, so you may actually want to skip this part - probably the same 20 people are all reviewing each other's work at the same time, passing judgment on one another simultaneously. How horrifying is that?
And yet, the report is done. That is one thing I can check off of my list of things to do, and ultimately, I do think that my response to the manuscript was fair and that I offered some suggestions that would make the essay hang together better, make the argument tighter, and make the thing really a super-interesting piece of scholarship. And maybe my lack of confidence when it comes to thinking about my authority in this area will not last forever. Maybe at some point I'll actually feel qualified to do this work. Maybe it's like teaching - that the more you do it the more authority one feels. One can only hope.
But it still sucks to know that I'm a person who could be responsible for somebody else's professional disappointment. The idea was really a good one. I hope the person realizes that I thought so.
2 years ago