A Double-Blind Double Bind

“It’s true what they say about Reviewer Two,” a friend said to me recently, joking that his own second reviewer had been the one barring the way to his new article’s publication yet again, asking for another round of changes. 

May 31, 2020

“It’s true what they say about Reviewer Two,” a friend said to me recently, joking that his own second reviewer had been the one barring the way to his new article’s publication yet again, asking for another round of changes.

Responding to the requests of peer reviewers is work many academics may sigh about. But they undertake it in part because they know that the resulting scholarship will be better, that it will help their publications withstand the scrutiny of their brilliant peers, and that it will perhaps even help their writing stand up to the much harder test of time.

Peer review, of course, is an essential bulwark of academia, helping to ensure the quality of scholarly knowledge. It’s difficult to gripe about one’s peer reviews without being seen as whiny, or as licking one’s wounds. I am lucky to have a situation, as a fixed-term faculty member at a SLAC, in which I will have the time and space to try again after my article manuscript was rejected recently from a major journal in my field. And try I will, taking into account many of my two reviewers’ excellent comments. From my heart, it was truly a thrill for my manuscript to get a real reading and thoughtful responses, something I don’t take for granted given that the last time scholars gathered just to talk about my work was at my dissertation defense over a year and a half ago.

Nevertheless, I want to bring forward something that happened to me that made me realize the double blind of peer review is far from perfect.

Reviewer Two noticed the citation I’d included of my other article, which, not surprisingly, uses one of the same terms as the manuscript currently under review. Reviewer Two then wrote that my claim of originating that term was unethical, as a writer named Laura Feibush had already published on it elsewhere. He or she then followed up that observation with the exhortation that I cite and engage with Feibush’s work in a much deeper way.

As flattering as it was to be used as a blockade against “somebody else” trying to publish my term, the situation was giving me fun-house-mirror vibes. I resented the suggestion that having and claiming my own ideas was somehow unethical. Further, and more soberingly, the remark smacks of the suggestion that the ideas in the paper could not have been my own, even though I cited their source -- my own previously published article -- at the risk of compromising my anonymity, which, given the submission guidelines of the journal, in and of itself may have been grounds for rejection. In taking my name off my writing, I entered into a double bind, whose rules seemed to inevitably push my piece away from acceptance, rather than toward it.

You may be thinking: well, then, just do it right, Feibush. In fact, I might have avoided the whole situation if I had deployed one or more strategies: first, the breezy scholarly move of prefacing a statement of my argument with “as I have written elsewhere.” This may have tipped the reviewer off that the already-published work was mine, avoiding the questionable use of my own work, but at the same time, it would sacrifice my anonymity, which is a hallmark of the double-blind peer-review process. Another way to handle it would have been to refer to myself in the third person, i.e., “Feibush has argued something similar to what I’m saying here in her 2018 article.” Yet another may have been to change my name in the citation of my own work simply to “Author.” I had never heard of these last two solutions before, so my readers here have the opportunity to learn from my mistake.

If an author diligently references all cited work, however, the minutiae of citation style should be of relatively minor concern to a journal looking to publish vibrant new ideas coming out of the profession. Furthermore, the intricate posturing of the solutions above may not make its way into the mentoring of graduate students and early career faculty. Their advisers may have been rightly more focused on developing their advisees’ ideas rather than on conveying the subtle style-guidery of publishing one’s second article.

Under the circumstances, another option for this reviewer would have been to respond not with defensiveness but with curiosity, with the impulse to ask a clarifying question rather than jump toward a stance of accusation. That response, in turn, would have taught me that I needed to handle citations of my own work differently, and reduced one of the many opacities in the challenging process of publication.

“You’re down the rabbit hole,” another friend said to me when I told him about the situation. Indeed, moving down the rocky road to academic publishing has often felt like navigating Wonderland. I fed the cake emblazoned with “eat me” to my dissertation and it shrank down to a fraction of itself, but then the chair at the table of my field’s academic journals turned out to loom too tall.

Peer review may not be perfect, but it’s the best system we’ve got. Moreover, pointing out an issue with the process of double-blind peer review won’t solve the deeper problems that most likely bring about harried reviews in the first place: a professoriate overworked due to budgetary hiring freezes, the constant work of justifying the value of our fields of study to those outside our campus communities and even to those within them, and the overriding forces of anti-intellectualism that currently characterize public discourse.

But in the midst of our work, let’s stay mindful of what can happen at moments when the system we work within denies people their names. Let’s be generous toward those offering their work for consideration in our prized journals, and let’s do our best to allow our curiosity to survive the demands of professional life in the academy.

Laura Feibush is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. At Juniata, she teaches courses in public and professional writing, writing across media, and first-year composition. Her work as a writer, teacher and researcher all spring from her focus on the power of listening.


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