Archive for November, 2013

You Broke Peer Review. Yes, I Mean You

| Gabriel |

I’m as excited as anybody about Sociological Science as it promises a clean break from the “developmental” model of peer review by moving towards an entirely evaluative model. That is, no more anonymous co-authors making your paper worse with a bunch of non sequiturs or footnotes with hedging disclaimers. (The journal will feature frequent comment and replies, which makes debate about the paper a public dialog rather than a secret hostage negotiation). The thing is though that optimistic as I am about the new journal, I don’t think it will replace the incumbent journals overnight and so we still need to fix review at the incumbent journals.

So how did peer review get broken at the incumbent journals?


You and I broke it.

Your average academic’s attitude towards changes demanded in R&R is like the Goofy cartoon “Motor Mania.”

In this cartoon Goofy is a meek pedestrian dodging aggressive drivers but as soon as he gets behind the wheel himself he drives like a total asshole. Similarly, as authors we all feel harassed by peer reviewers who try to turn our paper into the paper they would have written, but then as reviewers ourselves we develop an attitude of “yer doin it wrong!!!” and start demanding they cite all our favorite articles and with our favorite interpretations of those articles. (Note that in the linked post, Chen is absolutely convinced that she understands citations correctly and the author has gotten them wrong out of carelessness, without even considering the possibility that the interpretive flaw could be on her end or that there might be a reasonable difference of opinions).

So fixing peer review doesn’t begin with you, the author, yelling at your computer “FFS reviewer #10, maybe that’s how you would have done it, but it’s not your paper” (and then having a meeting with your co-authors that goes something like this):

And then spending the next few months doing revisions that feel like this:

And finally summarizing the changes in a response memo that sounds like this:

Nor, realistically, can fixing peer review happen from the editors telling you to go ahead and ignore comments 2, 5, and 6 of reviewer #6. First, it would be an absurd amount of work for the editors to adjudicate the quality of comments. Second, from the editor’s perspective the chief practical problem is recruiting reviewers and getting timely reviews from them and so they don’t want to alienate the reviewers by telling them that half their advice sucks in their cover letter any more than you want to do that in your response memo.

Rather, fixing peer review has to begin with you, the reviewer, telling yourself “maybe I would have done it another way myself, but it’s not my paper.” You need to adopt a mentality of “is it good how the author did it” rather than “how could this paper be made better” (read: how would I have done it). That is the whole of being a good reviewer, the rest is commentary. That said, here’s the commentary.

Do not brainstorm
Responding to a research question by brainstorming possibly relevant citations or methods is a wonderful and generous thing to do when a colleague or student mentions a new research project but it’s a thoroughly shitty thing to do as a peer reviewer. There are a few reasons why the same behavior is so different in two different contexts.

First, many brainstormed ideas are bad. When I give you advice in my office, you can just quietly ignore the ideas I give you that don’t work or are superfluous. When I give you advice as a peer reviewer there is a strong presumption that you take the advice even if it’s mediocre which is why almost every published paper has a couple of footnotes along the lines of “for purposes of this paper we assume that water is wet” or “although it has almost nothing to do with this paper, it’s worth noting that Author (YEAR) is pretty awesome.” Of course some suggestions are so terrible that the author can’t take them in good conscience but in such cases the author needs to spend hours or days per suggestion writing an apologetic and extremely deferential memo apologizing for not implementing the reviewer’s suggestions.

Second, many brainstormed ideas are confusing. When I give you advice in my office you can ask follow-up questions about how to interpret and implement it. When I give advice as a peer reviewer it’s up to you to hope that you read the entrails in a way that correctly augurs the will of the peer reviewers. As a related point, be as specific as possible. “This paper needs more Bourdieu” is a not terribly useful comment (indeed, “cite this” comments without further justification are usually less about any kind of intellectual content than they are about demanding shibboleths or the recitation of a creedal confession) whereas it might actually be pretty helpful to say “your argument about the role of critics on pages 4-5 should probably be described in terms of restricted field from Bourdieu’s Field of Cultural Production.” (Being specific has the ancillary benefit that it’s costly to the reviewer which should help you maintain the discipline to thin the mindfart herd stampeding into the authors’ revisions.)

Third, ideas are more valuable at the beginning of a project than at the end of it. When I give you advice about your new project you can use it to shape the way the project develops organically. When I give it to you as a reviewer you can only graft it on after the fact. My suggested specification may check the robustness of your finding or my suggested citation may help you frame your theory in a way that is more appealing, but they can’t help you develop your ideas because that ship has sailed.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t give an author advice on how to fix problems with the paper. However it is essential to keep in mind that no matter how highly you think of your own expertise and opinions, you remember that the author doesn’t want to hear it. When you give advice, think in terms of “is it so important that these changes be made that I upset the author and possibly delay publication at a crucial career point.” Imagine burning a $20 bill for every demand you make of the author and ask yourself if you’d still make it. Trust me, the author would pay a lot more than $20 to avoid it — and not just because dealing with comments is annoying but because it’s time-consuming and time is money. It usually takes me an amount of time that is at least the equivalent of a course release to turn-around an R&R and at most schools a course release in turn is worth about $10,000 to $30,000 if you’re lucky enough to raise the grants to buy them. If you think about the productivity of science as a sector then ask yourself if your “I’m just thinking out loud” comment that takes the author a week to respond to is worth a couple thousand dollars to society. I mean, I’ve got tenure so in a sense I don’t care but I do feel a moral obligation to give society a good value in exchange for the upper middle class living it provides me and I don’t feel like I’m getting society its money’s worth when I spend four months of full-time work to turn around one round of R&R instead of getting to my next paper. This brings me to my next point…

Distinguish demands versus suggestions versus synapses that happened to fire as you were reading the paper
A lot of review comments ultimately boil down to some variation on “this reminds me of this citation” or “this research agenda could go in this direction.” OK, great. Now ask yourself, is it a problem that this paper does not yet do these things or are these just possibilities you want to share with the author? Often as not they’re really just things you want to share with the author but the paper is fine without them. If so, don’t demand that the author do them. Rather just keep it to yourself or clearly demarcate these as optional suggestions that the author may want to consider, possibly for the next paper rather than the revision of this paper.

As a related issue, demonstrate some rhetorical humility. Taking a commanding and indignant tone doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about. On a recent review I observed, I noticed that one of the reviewers whose (fairly demanding) comments seemed to reflect a deep understanding of the paper nonetheless used a lot of phrases like “might,” “consider,” “could help,” etc whereas another reviewer who completely missed the point of the paper was prone to phrases like “needs to” and “is missing.”

There’s wrong and then there’s difference of opinion
On quite a few methodological and theoretical issues there is a reasonable range of opinion. Don’t force the author to weigh in on your side. It may very well be appropriate to suggest that the author acknowledge the existence of a debate on this subject (and perhaps briefly explore the implications of the alternative view) but that’s a different thing from expecting that the author completely switch allegiances because error has no rights. Often such demands are tacit rather than explicit, just taking for granted that somebody should use, I don’t know, Luhmann, without considering that the author might be among the many people who if told “you can cite Luhmann or you can take a beating” would ask you “tell me more about this beating? will there be clubs involved?”


For instance, consider Petev ASR 2013. The article relies heavily on McPherson et al ASR 2006, which is an extremely controversial article (see here, here, and here). One reaction to this would be to say the McPherson et al paper is refuted and ought not be cited. However Petev summarizes the controversy in footnote 10 and then in footnote 17 explains why his own data is a semi-independent (same dataset, different variables) corroboration of McPherson et al. These footnotes acknowledge a nontrivial debate about one of the article’s literature antecedents and then situates the paper within the debate. No matter what your opinion of McPherson et al 2006, you should be fine with Petev relying upon and supporting it while parenthetically acknowledging the debate about it.

There are also issues of essentially theoretical nature. I sat on one of my R&R for years in large part because I’m using a theory in its original version while briefly discussing how it would be different if we were to use a schism of the theory while one of the reviewers insists that I rewrite it from the perspective of the schismatic view. Theoretical debates are rarely an issue of decisive refutation or strictly cumulative knowledge but rather at any given time there’s a reasonable range of opinions and you shouldn’t demand that the author go with your view but at most that they explore its implications if they were to. Most quants will suggest robustness checks to alternative plausible model specifications without demanding that these alternative models are used in the actual paper’s tables, we should have a similar attitude towards treating robustness or scope conditions to alternative conceptions of theory as something for the footnotes rather than a root and branch reconceptualization of the paper.

There are cases where you fall on one side of a theoretical or methodological gulf and the author on another to the extent that you feel that you can’t really be fair. For instance, I can sometimes read the bibliography of a paper, see certain cites, and know instantly that I’m going to hate the paper. Under such circumstances you as the reviewer have to decide if you’re going to engage in what philosophers of science call “the demarcation problem” and sociologists of science call “boundary work” or you’re going to recuse yourself from the review. If you don’t like something but it has an active research program of non-crackpots then you should probably refuse to do the review rather than agreeing and inevitably rejecting. Note that the managing editor will almost always try to convince you to do the review anyway and I’ve never been sure if this is them thinking I’m giving excuses for being lazy and not being willing to let me off the hook, them being lazy about finding a more appropriate reviewer, or an ill-conceived principle that a good paper should be pleasing to all members of the discipline and thus please even a self-disclaimed hostile reader. Notwithstanding the managing editor’s entreaties, be firm about telling him or her, “no, I don’t feel I could be fair to a paper of type X, but please send me manuscripts of type Y or Z in the future.”

Don’t try to turn the author’s theory section into a lit review.
The author’s theory section should motivate the hypotheses. The theory section is not about demonstrating basic competence or reciting a creedal confession and so it does not need to discuss every book or article ever published on the subject or even just the things important enough to appear on your graduate syllabus or field exam reading list. If “AUTHOR (YEAR)” would not change the way we understand the submission’s hypotheses, then there’s no good reason the author needs to cite it. Yes, that is true even if the “omitted” citation is the most recent thing published on the subject or was written by your favorite grad student who you’re so so proud of and really it’s a shame that her important contribution isn’t cited more widely. If the submission reminds you of a citation that’s relevant to the author’s subject matter, think about whether it would materially affect the argument. If it would, explain how it would affect the argument. If it wouldn’t, then either don’t mention it at all or frame it as an optional suggestion rather than berating the author for being so semi-literate as to allow such a conspicuous literature lacuna.

By materially affect the argument I mostly have in mind the idea that in light of this citation the author would do the analysis or interpret the analysis differently. This is not the same thing as saying “you do three hypotheses, this suggests a fourth.” Rather it’s about this literature shows that doing it that way is ill-conceived and you’re better off doing it this way. It’s simplest if you think about in terms of methods where we can imagine a previous cite demonstrates how important it is for this phenomena that one models censorship, specifies a particular form for the dependent variable, or whatever. Be humble in this sort of thing though lest it turn into brainstorming.

Another form of materially affecting the argument would be if the paper is explicitly pitched as novel but it is in fact discussing a well understood problem. It is not necessarily a problem if the article discusses an issue in terms of literature X but does not also review literature Y that is potentially related. However it is a problem if the author says nobody has ever studied issue A in fashion B when there is in fact a large literature from subfield Y that closely parallels what the author is pitching. More broadly, you should call the authors on setting up straw man lit review, where one special case of that would be “there is no literature.” (Note to authors: be very careful with “this is unprecedented” claims). Again, be humble in how you apply this lest it turn into a pretext for demanding that every article not only motivate its positive contribution, but also be prefaced with an exhaustive review that would be suitable for publication in ARS.

There is one major exception to the rule that a paper should have a theory section and not a lit review, which is when the authors are importing a literature that is likely to be unfamiliar to their audience and so they need more information than usual to get up to speed. Note though that this is an issue best addressed by the reviewers who are unfamiliar with the literature and for whom it is entirely appropriate to say something like “I was previously unfamiliar with quantum toad neuropathology and I suspect other readers will be as well so I ask that rather than assuming a working knowledge of this literature that the author please add a bit more background information to situate the article and point to a good review piece or textbook for those who want even more background.” Of course that’s rarely how the “do more lit review” comments go. Rather such comments tend to be from people with a robust knowledge of theory X and they want to ensure that the authors share that knowledge and gavage it into the paper’s front end. I’m speaking from personal experience as on several occasions I have used theories that are exotic to sociologists and while several of the reviewers said they were glad to learn about this new-to-them theory and how it fits with more mainstream sociology like peanut butter and chocolate, nobody asked for more background on it. And I’m cool with that since it means my original drafts provided sufficient background info for them to get the gist of the exotic theory and how it was relevant. Of course, I did get lots of “you talk about Bourdieu, but only for ten pages when you could easily go for twenty.” That is, nobody wants to know more about something they didn’t know before and need a little more background knowledge to get up to speed, but everybody wants to yell “play Freebird!” This is exactly backwards of how it should be.


Don’t let flattery give you a big head
It is customary for authors to express their gratitude to the reviewers. You might take from this to think, “ahhh, Gabriel’s wrong about R&Rs being broken,” or more likely “that may be true of other reviewers, but I provide good advice since, after all, they thank me for it.” Taking at face value an author who gushes about what a wonderful backseat driver you are is like watching a prisoner of war saying “I would like to thank my captors for providing me with adequate food and humane treatment even as my country engages in unprovoked imperialist aggression against this oppressed people.” Meanwhile he’s blinking “G-E-T-M-E-O-U-T-O-F-H-E-R-E” in Morse code.

Appreciate the constraints imposed on the author by the journal:
Many journals impose a tight word count. When you ask an author to also discuss this or that, you’re making it very difficult for them to keep their word count. One of the most frustrating things as an author is getting a cover letter from the editor saying “Revise the manuscript to include a half dozen elaborate digressions demanded by the reviewers, but don’t break your word count.”

Some journals demand that authors include certain material and you need to respect that. ASR is obsessed with articles speaking to multiple areas of the discipline. This necessarily means that an article that tries to meet this mandate won’t be exclusively oriented towards your own subfield and it may very well be that its primary focus is on another literature and its interest in your own literature being secondary. Don’t view this as an incompetent member of your own subfield but as a member of another subfield trying (under duress) to build bridges to your subfield. Similarly some journals demand implications for social policy or for managers. Even if you would prefer value neutrality (or value-laden but with a different set of values) or think it’s ridiculous to talk as if firms will change their business practices because somebody did a t-test, appreciate that this may be a house rule of the journal and the author is doing the best she can to meet it.

Stand up to the editors:
You can be the good guy. Or if necessary, you can demand a coup de grace. But either way you can use your role as a reviewer to push the editors and your fellow reviewers towards giving the authors a more streamlined review process.

First, you can respond to the other parts of the reviews and response memo from the previous round. If you think the criticisms were unfair or that the author responded to them effectively, go ahead and say so. It makes a big difference to the author if she can make explicit that the other reviewers are with her.

Second, you can cajole the editors to make a decision already. In your second round R&R review tell the editors that there’s never going to be a complete consensus among the reviewers and they should stop dicking the authors around with R&Rs. You can refuse to be the dreaded “new reviewer.” You can refuse to review past the first round R+R. You can tell the editors that you’re willing to let them treat your issues as a conditional accept adjudicated by them rather than as another R&R that goes back to you for review.

Just as importantly as being nice, you can tell the editors to give a clean reject. Remember, an R&R does not mean “good but not great” or “honorable mention” but “this could be rewritten to get an accept.” Some flaws (often having to do with sampling or generalizability) are of a nature that they simply can’t be fixed so even if you like the other aspects of the paper you should just reject. Others may be fixable in principle (often having to do with the lit review or model specification) but in practice doing so would require you to rewrite the paper for the authors and it benefits nobody for you to appoint yourself anonymous co-author. Hence my last point…

Give decisive rejections

I’ve emphasized how to be nice to the authors by not burdening them with superfluous demands However it’s equally important to be decisive about things that are just plain wrong. I have a lot of regrets about my actions as a peer reviewer and if I were to go through my old review reports right now I’d probably achieve Augustinian levels of self-reproach. Many of them of are of the nature of “I shouldn’t have told that person to cite/try a bunch of things that didn’t really matter because by so doing I was being the kind of spend-the-next-year-on-the-revisions-to-make-the-paper-worse reviewer I myself hate to get.” However, I don’t at all regret, for instance, a recommendation to reject that I wrote in which I pointed out that the micro-mechanisms of the author’s theory were completely incompatible with the substantive processes in the empirical setting and that the quantitative model was badly misspecified. Nor do I regret recommending to reject a paper because it relied on really low quality data and its posited theoretical mechanism was a Rube Goldberg device grounded in a widely cited but definitively debunked paper. Rather my biggest regret as a reviewer is that I noticed a manuscript had a grievous methodological flaw that was almost certainly entirely driving the results but I raised the issue in a hesitant fashion and the editor published the paper anyway. As I’ve acquired more experience on both sides of the peer review process, I’ve realized that being a good peer reviewer isn’t about being nice, nor is it about providing lots of feedback. Rather being a good reviewer is about evaluating which papers are good and which papers are bad and clearly justifying those decisions. I’m honored to serve as a consulting editor for Sociological Science because that is what that journal asks of us but I also aspire to review like that regardless of what journal I’m reviewing for and I hope you will too. (Especially if you’re reviewing my papers).

November 18, 2013 at 9:07 am 12 comments

The Culture Geeks