I was 27 years old when a professor of mine first told me that one of my essays would be worth trying to publish in a peer-reviewed journal. I was flattered and I felt validated as an academic-in-training. That professor was an uncompromising acolyte of the left, a man who made no attempt to hide his affinity for “the early Marx.” Up to this point, I had thought he disliked me (and maybe he had). But his positive response to my paper shocked me, if only because the central argument was a criticism of the Marxist notion of bodily pleasure – a critique I demonstrated through a close-reading of the story of Tom Outland, which forms the middle portion of Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House.
Dr. Forter made clear that the essay would need a lot of revision before it was ready to send out for peer review. But he was willing to help me do it. We would set up lunch dates where he would explain the weaknesses of the current draft. Over the week, I would try to address those flaws, then send him the new draft. At our next lunch, he would move on to the next item that needed fine-tuning in the paper. More than anyone else, Forter taught me the meaning of revision. Finally, he thought it was ready. We started at the top: I sent it to Modern Fiction Studies.
After 4 agonizing months of waiting for a decision, it arrived. The first page of the mailing delivered the disappointment. The editor explained that while one peer reader recommended revision and eventual publication, the other recommended rejection. As the tiebreaker, the editor sided with the unfavorable reviewer. But he had some compliments for the manuscript and encouraged me to read the reports of the reviewers as I continued working on the essay. Next, I read the report of the first reader, who made many constructive recommendations for how to improve the essay. I moved that page to reveal the report of the second reader. I saw a sheet that was completely blank, except for a few words at the very top. Squinting, I read “Much ado about nothing.”
I guess that reviewer was trying to wound me. Why else would a reader be so dismissive of something a “peer” had worked so hard on. If I was a different sort of person, that curt note might have convinced me never to send out any of my work again. But the only thing that came to mind was “I’ll show him.” Four years later, that essay was published in the top-tier Journal of Modern Literature. But my first attempt to publish scholarship permanently darkened my mood regarding the process of peer-review.
Peer-Review as Ideological Policing
Over the course of my career, I have encountered more than my share of jerky reviewers, but the jerks aren’t the major problem with peer review these days. In many fields today – especially those in the humanities and social sciences – peer review has become a mechanism that serves to enforce ideological conformity within the disciplines. This inhibits the formation of communities of open inquiry in higher education. More importantly, it ensures that conservatives and other dissident thinkers are marginalized – not just in the pages of academic journals, but in the space of the university itself. If work that does not conform to the values of the progressive left is barred from publication, dissident academics are faced with a tough choice: either bring their work into alignment with the political orthodoxy of one’s field (and get published), or maintain one’s own vision of a research trajectory. Choosing the latter often means non-publication (or placement in lesser-known journals). Given that publication is still the primary key to tenure and promotion in academia, policing the views that are expressed in the journals is a convenient (and mostly invisible) way to purge higher education of dissident thinkers.
The editors and staff of journals achieve this form of stealth censorship in a variety of ways. In the case of an essay I wrote on the crass ways that college teachers characterize whiteness in the classroom, I couldn’t get the editor of a major journal to concede that she had, in fact, received my submission. I have had manuscripts rejected for being too long by journals that explicitly state they have no limits pertaining to the length of submissions. In a co-authored rhetorical analysis that made a soft criticism of a speech by then-President Obama, a colleague and I sent what we thought was a very strong manuscript to a dozen American journals, only to be rejected by each one (for different reasons each time). When we finally decided to send the essay to a journal outside the United States, the manuscript was accepted without revision on the first try. Coincidence? Maybe, but probably not.
How could this happen? For one, although the “blind” nature of peer reviews still has a hallowed status among academics, in many fields (especially smaller ones) it is easy for reviewers to determine who likely wrote a piece of research – especially if that author has carved out a distinctive niche in her field. Further, though, the editors of journals often exercise a kind of sovereignty about what will be published in “their” journals. If the editor doesn’t like an essay that is submitted (or doesn’t like its author), it is not difficult to assign that essay to peer reviewers who are likely to be hostile to a particular essay.
In short, it’s nothing new that editors have ways to manipulate the peer review process when they desire. Sometimes, bias manifests unconsciously. Recently, though, we have seen evidence of an even more strident effort by activist editors to police what sorts of research will have access to the pages of major journals. Whereas in the past, a devious editor could rig the outcome of the peer review, many are now openly circumventing the peer review process altogether.
Editorial Corruption and Intellectual Coercion
In 2016, I wrote an essay that compared the rhetorical strategies that Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal used to authenticate their new identities in the eyes of the public. The essay was rejected at a number of journals in my field. Some editors found an arbitrary flaw that they cited as the reason that they were unwilling to send it out for review. The editors who did send the essay out for review chose peer reviewers whose research focused on gender studies or critical race theory – scholars who could be counted on for an unreceptive reading. I was frustrated, in part because I saw the essay as my best work to date.
One night as I tried to determine how to proceed, I watched as my wife pushed a pill down into a bowl of wet food for our cat. Then it hit me: the only way that this research would be published was if it was hidden in the context of a larger work. I was going to have to write a book. This February, Penn State University Press published my book entitled Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self. The second half of the third chapter contains parts of that earlier essay. I give my publisher great credit for publishing a manuscript that they knew would be controversial, despite the fact that they requested many edits in an effort to ensure that readers on the political left wouldn’t “bristle” at the contents. I wondered: had any academic publisher ever asked a scholar on the left to pull punches so as not to make conservative readers “bristle”? The question answers itself.
As pet owners know, you can hide the pill in the food. You might even get the stupid animal to swallow the damn pill. But the result is always the same: that pill will be vomited back up in short order. So it is with my recent work. I successfully concealed the pill. And now, as expected, I am seeing the signs of imminent regurgitation.
50 years ago, a member of my family left town, changed his name, and severed all connections to his previous life. Everyone finally assumed he was dead. But about two years ago, my uncle located this person. As a rhetorician who conducts research on personal transformation, I was eager to talk to this person about how he had fashioned a new identity. These planned disappearances and assumed identities have been the focus of my research this year. After working all summer to prepare a new essay on the topic, I sent it to Rhetoric Society Quarterly (RSQ) in late August.
I have published research in RSQ in the past, and I have also served as a peer reviewer for the journal. Thus, I was surprised when a few days after submission, the editor (Jacqueline Rhodes) wrote to inform me that she would not send the essay out for peer review. While she expressed repeatedly that the research was very interesting, she insisted that it was “not ready” for publication. Of course, determining the readiness of research for publication is the very purpose of the peer review process. If the work was of inferior quality, the peer reviewers would have relayed that information to the editor.
I pride myself on submitting clean, well-prepared manuscripts, so I was curious: what about the essay was so poorly done that it received a desk rejection from the editor? Rhetoric Society Quarterly is published by Taylor and Francis, which oversees an array of other academic journals. At their website, I found that there are two reasons an editor might offer a desk rejection: because a submission is outside the purview of the journal’s disciplinary focus, or because the manuscript does not conform to the “Instructions for Authors” on a journal’s website that detail formal and stylistic requirements for manuscripts. As a rhetorician who has previously published in RSQ, I know that the work I submitted was topically well-suited for the journal – a fact validated by Dr. Rhodes repeated assertion that the work was interesting. My essay also conformed to all the instructions for authors – I consulted RSQ’s webpage before submission to make sure of that.
Dr. Rhodes did mention two things about the essay that motivated her unilateral decision to reject. First, I didn’t cite what she viewed as relevant research from the field of medicine. Secondly, she said she found one sentence “troubling.” The sentence in question made passing reference to my comparison of Jenner and Dolezal in my book. It is important to note that in order to ensure a blind review, I referred to my earlier work in the third-person. In a further effort to conceal my authorship from peer reviewers, I explicitly framed my essay as a corrective to a central claim in my book, which to a reviewer would read like a criticism of my work.
To the credit of Dr. Rhodes, after some pressing from me, she admitted that her decision to reject was not made on the grounds allowable by Taylor and Francis. She said that she wouldn’t publish any work that was “racist or transphobic, even in passing.” Of course, my essay had absolutely nothing to do with race or gender identity – the one sentence that referred to my earlier comparison of Jenner and Dolezal was only included because it related to the more general concept of personal transformation that was the subject of my submission. If my manuscript was truly “unready” for publication, then peer review would surely affirm that, and Dr. Rhodes wouldn’t have to countenance RSQ publishing a piece that offended her delicate political sensibilities. And this shows the real reason that she rejected the essay: she did not want to risk a positive reception from reviewers, which would necessitate its publication.
In effect, I have been blackballed by the flagship journal in my field because my work deviates from the pieties the activist left. This is ironic, given that in describing her vision for RSQ (when she assumed the position of editor), Dr. Rhodes wrote that the journal would publish more “counterpoints.” I was recently promoted to full professor, so I have little to lose from the censoring of my research. But this is not an isolated incident, and graduate students and junior faculty are especially vulnerable to these tactics.
The Future of Scholarly Publishing
The circumventing of peer review is a strategy increasingly employed by activists in fields across the university. Even in the sciences, there is evidence of political motives in what gets published – and what doesn’t. Of course, I filed a complaint with Taylor and Francis about the bias at RSQ, and forwarded the essay that was rejected along with all the communications between the editor and I. They responded by saying they would look into the matter. Weeks later, they are still “looking into” it. I am not very optimistic that there will be any meaningful response to this incident, especially given that Taylor and Francis is actively preparing to undertake measures that will likely ensure that more activists are promoted to positions of power in academic publishing. Just this week, members of editorial boards at Taylor and Francis journals were asked to complete a survey that aimed to reveal measures that would ensure “greater diversity of journal Editors and Editorial Boards.” This begs the question: what kind of diversity? I might be wrong, but there is good reason to suspect that this is not an effort to incorporate greater viewpoint diversity.
There are many ways that the peer review process could be improved. The most obvious way would be to ensure that no journal representatives (including the editor) know the identity of the author of any submission until a publication decision is made. That reform could be easily achieved, and the fact that so few journals have implemented it indicates scholars’ paltry appetite for a process that is truly blind. Another improvement would be to ensure that peer-reviewers are randomly assigned to each submission. This would ensure that an editor can’t simply choose reviewers who will echo the editor’s own valuation of the research.
But one is left to wonder: with the dismal financial situation of academic publishing, the increase of open-access publishing of academic research online, and the great democratization of knowledge wrought by the digital age, is peer review still necessary? Isn’t a primary value of research its usefulness to those who access it? If so, in a world without peer review, wouldn’t the cream rise? The chain of citation of a given work over time would clarify its value in the marketplace of knowledge.
Consider, also, the replication crisis in the social sciences. The fact that so much recently published research has been shown to have severe methodological problems suggests that perhaps the peer review process is not achieving the quality control that advocates cite as its primary function.
In addition to all these factors, the ongoing changes to the system of academic labor (with far fewer tenure-track positions being allocated) hint that one’s record of publishing peer-reviewed scholarship might soon be displaced as the primary metric used in promotion considerations. Under these circumstances, it might be interesting to start a cross-disciplinary academic journal that makes no use of peer review – a test of whether (and to what extent) the process of peer review enhances the quality of published research. A possible title: The Peerless Review.
Editor’s note: The author, Adam Ellwanger, is currently seeking signatures from faculty at all universities for an open letter on campus culture, which currently has over 150 signers. Read the letter here, and if you wish to add your name, email Dr. Ellwanger at [email protected] or contact him on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger.”