While accomplished academics worry about academic reviewing, less accomplished academics (hey what is UP!) worry about academic refereeing, that is, what happens when articles are submitted and farmed out to experts in the field for review in order to see if they’re worth publishing. Here is a precis of my view– just cross out “audience” and write in “professional colleague or rival.”

I’m not kidding about the fuckwad part, which can emerge in the refereeing stage or beyond. Two friends have had this experience recently:

Referees: publish this! it’s good!
Editor: well, they like it, but I think you should make some changes.
[Changes made.]
Editor: you know what, I don’t really want to publish this anyway.
The clock: hey, it’s a year later. How’s that tenure file coming?

This is particularly frustrating because, at least in my experience, different referees will have very different problems with a submission. So submitting to a new journal after making some revisions is a lot like starting over– it’s not as though the new referees will agree with the original objections and see that they’ve been addressed. (What this says about the objectivity of the judgments being made is an exercise left to the reader.)

And referees themselves can be a tremendous pain in the ass. The sad truth is that the judgment they are asked to make might well be the difference between the golden handcuffs of tenure and “has left the profession.” Yet a lot of these reports look like they’re dashed off in half an hour or so. I think the worst one I got said, more or less, “I don’t know that much about the topic, and I don’t understand this paper, but it should definitely be rejected.” (This is one of the perils of working in the intersection of areas, I think– sure, I work at one edge of Area E, and this ref works in another section of Area E, but there is a vast gulf between us.) Even when the reports are correct, they’re often stated in fuckwad rather than standard English. It’s not a blog, you know; snark is not the most helpful approach.

I’ve found this heuristic to be useful: vividly imagine that my report advocating rejection drops the hammer on someone’s last best hope. This leads to a more polite tone and gut-wrenching guilt, so it’s really a win-win.