Peer reviewing pet peeves

So I have been doing the scholarly gig for awhile, and I have Opinions. Here are some of my pet peeves that reviewers do, in no particular order.

  • saying that work is not valid because it’s qualitative work, and therefore, not valid, after agreed to study qualitative work

    There it is, inevitably, a complaint about qualitative methods since you can’t generalize, even though you have not generalized in your paper, the paper is simply not generalizable and thus should not be published. Um, yeah, we know; all of us took research design, sweetie, all of us; don’t agree to review qualitative work if you have the belief that the only work that should be published is generalizable in the social science sense of the word. You already know you are going to recommend rejecting the paper based on method alone, and anybody who agrees to review a paper just so they can have the petty joy of hitting “reject” is a dick.

    Let somebody who believes the methods well enough to distinguish when they have been done properly. Otherwise you have appointed yourself the epistemology sheriff in town and nobody who isn’t a philosopher needs an epistemology sheriff in their town.

  • banging on about one hypothetical question after another that are really only tangentially about the question at hand

    Sigh; go write your own papers that answer these questions then and bloody tell me whether I’ve answered the question that I actually posed in the damn paper well enough to merit a contribution.

  • hand-wringing about how this particular paper didn’t solve every outstanding question in the field

    Oh, gosh, you mean the paper didn’t solve the dispute between Rawls and Harsayani and the dispute between neo-marxists and postmodernists and didn’t resolve the man-nature dichotomy? Jeez, where did this author get a degree? The correspondence school PhD from the University of Rancho Cucamonga?

  • lecturing and/or condescending about “the rich literature in yada yada “that this author does not seem to know.”
  • That last one really gets me. As soon I read that hackneyed phrase “there is a rich literature”…I’m thinking, “would you shut the hell up?”

    Reviewers have no evidence on what an author knows and what they don’t know based on the 7000 words in any given manuscript. Maybe I do know that literature and I just didn’t think it was germane. Or I just couldn’t wedge it into the manuscript. At some point, the onus is, in fact, on a reviewer to explain why “this rich literature” is germane to the point, or else you look like a

    a) somebody who is playing a childish “I gotcha” game (“I know something you don’t know neeeeener neeeeeener neeener.” OR

    b) somebody angling to get yourself cited.

    Really, I got no problems with (b). We all the know the score, and while it is unseemly to use your power as a reviewer for your own agenda, I’m willing to grant that it’s nowhere near Mussolini’s level when it comes to abuse of power. We will all live with these petty grabs, as long as reviewers have enough decency to know the limits. (Don’t reject a paper because it failed to cite you; I have seen reviewers do this, and, um, no.)

    If you are going to try to squeeze a citation for yourself out of it…then damn it, just cut to the chase:

    “The framing here suffers because it needs to draw somewhat from the extant research on X. In that literature, they have found some important things about Q and R that strike me as germane to the question about yada. Some key explorations in that literature are One Cite, Two Cite, Three Cite, My Cite. Those might help fix this problem.”

    The freaking end. Spare us all the “I know a literature youuuuuuuu doooooon’t knooooooooow.”

  • Taking things personally or whining when the author explains why you are wrong and they are right.
  • Ok, I get that I am snarky in print (I am also snarky in person), but honestly, by the time you read my letter, I’ve edited out all I really wanted to say and just the left the “I’m right, you’re wrong” part. Don’t go blathering on for pages about how something is wrong, with italics and various other emphatic phrasing, if you aren’t going to expect an author to come back at you with a similarly strong opinion. If you feel strongly about a point, say so and say why and move on–and expect that authors are going to feel strongly about some points, too.

    On one of my last papers, I had to deal with a reviewer who demanded we add another case study, and I said I wasn’t willing to do that because it diluted the point of what was, on its face, an interesting single case. I did point out that I understood the social science problems, and that it is perfectly valid to decide in a specific journal that they aren’t interested in historical methods in general, and if that really is an editorial choice for this journal, then that’s certainly understandable and we could take the paper to a history journal.

    This reviewer comes back, complains that I am being mean, and whines that he or she “spends a lot of time and thought in reviewing” and by the time I am reading that sentence, I’m ready to barf.

    Would you look out for your own ego? You didn’t seem to be terribly worried about mine when you went on lecturing me for paragraphs about the purpose of multiple case study design, like I’m undergraduate who didn’t read the Yin book.

    Really? You spend time and thought reviewing? Ya think you are the only sailor on the Pequod here? I review on average about 30 papers a year, and have done so for about five years, and that’s not counting the papers I do for lots of PhD students and young scholars personally. I have been a reviewer on several of the last “best paper” award winners, and I review just about every book proposal that comes my way. Ok? You know what that and $1.75 gets us? A ride on the bus. It’s my job. I try to do a good job, and I’m glad that this reviewer, too, tries to do a good job, but please stop making a tussle about who is right or wrong about something–particularly something that may come down to taste and editorial preferences–about you.

  • Trying to kill a paper because the author has not sufficiently genuflected and changed the things you thought needed changing.
  • For one thing, I try to say to authors “hey, I think this here might be a big deal” versus “this here is a small deal.” If an author doesn’t take your suggestions, it’s because they think you are wrong. That’s ok. People are wrong sometimes. Sometimes, people are wrong about other people being wrong. It happens, too.

    There are two sides to this. If an author has blown off something I consider to be a big deal, I want to know the reason. Maybe it’s a good reason I didn’t think of.

    And some writers really are wasting your time as a reviewer: they don’t care what you think and they are too lazy to revise. Now, there are many, many complaints that people can make about me, but one is not that I am insufficiently responsive to reviwers. I do a lot to deal with their suggestions, and if somebody has got an important point, I will turn myself inside out to deal with it.

    But reviewers are not customers at a Burger King where they have a right to have it their way just because they were kind enough to serve as reviewers. There has to be a give-and-take, and while I want my time and energy respected as a reviewer, authors deserve to retain authorial control over the manuscript’s scope, voice, and vision. If they give me a good reason for why they are right and I am not, then that’s the end of it. I might have additional concerns, but those are a separate conversation. It’s not my paper, it’s theirs.

    If I have authors who do not take my suggestions seriously, I make a decision based on what is there. If I really do think the manuscript should be rejected based on the problem I pointed out, I do that. If these are just matters of improvement, but the paper is acceptable, I say that they should improve the manuscript but I’m out as a reviewer and the paper is basically acceptable if less than what it could be with more revision. Nobody needs a reviewer they aren’t listening to, and I got other stuff to do.

    Once I had a problem with a multi-case study manuscript where I objected to how the cases were presented. I thought the authors were getting in their own way, and it wasn’t clear that they had a control. I suggested changing the way the cases were presented, and/or adding a case if they didn’t actually have a control.

    This struck me at the time as a pretty big deal.The paper just read like a meandering mess to me, and other reviewers seemed to me to be reacting to the problems in organization. Organizing multiple cases is hard. The journal editor strongly emphasized another reviewer’s comments, instead of mine, and I shrugged and went on with my life, even though I thought the editor was making a mistake.

    The author’s came back to me with the response “It’s always possible to suggest another case, but doing so adds nothing new, so we did not take this suggestion.”

    Ok, but the suggestion had also included the possibility of reorganizing and clarifying if they already had a sense of what the case controls were. I read the paper and had the exact same problem, so I wrote a short second round review and said, “hey, this paper’s structure and organization is not helping it. I strongly advise re-outlining it for clarity…” and then I made a couple of suggestions.

    The journal editor again did not emphasize my suggestion, so it came back from the second revision with the same smelly pile of organizational problems it had all along, and I refused to review it. I told the editor that I’d told both him and the authors twice before what the problem was, they didn’t listen to me, and now he’d put the authors through two rounds of revisions, and my only suggestion was to rewrite the entire first half. He had two other reviewers who hated the paper by now and wanted to reject it, and the editor actually called me on the phone and said he needed me to step in because he was neither a method nor content expert. I said that I didn’t have any other critiques besides the one I’d already made, to no avail, twice before.

    This struck me–and the editor agreed–as a mishap in editing. Perhaps because I wasn’t emphatic enough in my original review, both he and the authors missed that my point was a pretty important one. They had a paper they had revised multiple times, and the only thing I could add at this point was a suggestion that could potentially lead to a great deal of revision–restructuring work is sometimes not at all straightforward–and that I also couldn’t recommend publishing unless that work were undertaken, and that we were not here because I hadn’t pointed it out before, but because the editor hadn’t noticed that I was saying that something that was a basic problem for the manuscript. This was a great editor, too. He just didn’t see it. Maybe I should have yelled and screamed as the paper was heading for the cliff, but I think pointing out the cliff multiple times is sufficient to the point.

    The editor accepted the paper, warts and all, which is fine. I personally wouldn’t have, but I am rather famous for rewriting and overwriting and perfectionism and maybe I was wrong. Maybe the authors and other people see the connections in the structure that I never did.

    My four Donald Trumps #myfourDonaldTrumps

    There is an ocean of writing on what a sexist jerk Donald Trump is. I consume much of it, and it’s all depressing. But this very funny, extremely apt post from Wendy Molyneux in The Atlantic made me squirm with recognition, and it inspired me to write up every character in my own life that her post inspired.

    1. The Drunk Uncle who is “an older male relative who smells like cigarettes and asks when you are going to lose that weight. You’re 9 years old.”

    Sexism was so thick on the ground in my family that it’s hard to pick, but congratulations have to go out the gifted creeps all over my family who let me grow up watching while they treated their wives like indentured servants who worked side-by-side on farms with them and then came in to cook and clean and *serve them at table* while they sat there like kings and refused to lift a god-damn finger in the house because that was “women’s work”, always said with deep revulsion, like they would get girl cooties if they took their own plate from the table to the sink. THEN of course making sure that these same women were worthy of harsh criticism when they gained a pound or so after having a Catholic’s fair number of children, all the while those launching these criticisms, themselves, possessed Brobdingnagian beer guts, no visible commitments to either full sentences or personal hygiene, and teeth that would have made the average Neanderthal faint.

    And there should be a lifetime achievement award for a) thinking rape jokes are funny and b) acting like if they ever caught me wearing something suggestive, rape would be the outcome, and boy, oh, boy, I’d learn something then.

    These gentlemen were fond of noting that I “thought I was too good for them.”

    Because I was.

    2. The teacher who’s volunteered to cover the Lit portion of the Decathlon is also the tennis coach, and he’s going over Ezra Pound’s poem, “Portrait d’une Femme,” with you and your teammates. He’s the first person who looks at you a certain way that will happen again and again for the rest of your life, as if he simultaneously can’t see you and would like to kill you.

    Ohhhhh this goes out to a literature teacher of mine, who, watching me enthuse with my effervescent youth about literature, a topic I loved, said to my 12 year-old self, and I quote: “Women have never contributed anything to literature except, you know, as mothers. Giving birth to real writers.”

    It will surprise nobody to learn that he sent me to the principal’s office for insubordination many times.

    “She thinks she’s so important.”

    You goddamn right I do, shithead, and Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Zora Neale Hurston are three reasons why I do despite having had to grow up with dipshits like you in front of my classroom.

    3. Now he’s your boss.

    Ah, my boss. Enter in a boss that just about everybody likes because he is genial. He doesn’t want to be a sexist, but he is, and he lives in chronic fear, and thus, loathing of any woman he suspects is smarter than he is, and I was, by several miles. I was carrying around a book that I had been reading, and he ostentatiously said to me, in front of a bunch of his buddies; “you can just do this one thing for me, and then you can get back to your Dreamboat.”

    I squinted, “What? What are you talking about? Dreamboat?”

    Him, eyeing his buds with the self-confidence that points were going to be scored at my expense, and that the Girl Was Going to Be Taken Down a Peg Intellectually: “That book you are reading, that romance book, “Dreamboat.”

    I got out my rucksack and produced this volume: “You mean this? It’s a military history of the arms race between Germany and Britain leading up the First World War. It’s about dreadnoughts, you know, the battleship. ”


    He looks at it. “Oh, uh.”

    Me, utterly clueless because that’s how I roll: “It’s got two men on the front! Look here, there’s Kaiser Wilhelm and King Edward on the cover. How did you mistake that for a romance novel? What the hell kind of romance novels do you read?”

    Lots of very, very limp weenies sitting in a circle at that point. I needed a new job pretty soon after that one.

    4. And then this one.
    He’s there, bragging, waving his arms, talking over everybody, reminding me of my blowhard colleague who pretends to like me but really doesn’t, who leers at the young women on our campus and makes comments if my shirt shows too much cleavage. Both these Donalds make my head throb with disgust, one, because he has a little adoring fanbase of people a-clapping away as he degrades the people surrounding him, and the other my own little Donald Trump who plants himself in my office and brags about all his job offers, his this, his that, blah blah…while he makes hours and hours of extra work for me because he offends students left and right and I am their shoulder to lean on.


    On awards when you just tried to do your job

    I received a very nice award called the Margarita McCoy award. It’s an honor. I am honored, truly, largely because I truly admired Margarita McCoy’s approach to planning. We lost her this year, which makes it all the more poignant.

    But now I have to do interviews and I have awards lunches to go to. And I don’t really feel like I deserve any awards particularly. I feel like I did my job.

    One reason I was nominated for the award had to do with the research I have done, much of partnered with Virginia Tech’s fantastic Pamela Murray-Tuite, on women and family mobility.

    And I am proud of that research.

    But you aren’t doing your job in travel behavior research if you aren’t paying attention to differences in how different groups travel. It’s not that I’m so great for knowing this. It’s that a person is a sucky, sucky planner and urbanist if they don’t understand that urban systems work differently for different people. (eg Smartest Boy Urbanists, and why they need to sit down now and then.)

    As to promoting the work of young female scholars…well, that is my job, too. It isn’t exemplary that I do that. It’s a problem that other people don’t. I feel like the father who has everybody saying to him “Oh, what a great dad you are!” just because he is out with his kids, something mom does all the damn time with nobody handing her any cookies like ‘What a great mom you are.” I promote and echo the work of young male and female scholars because I am one of the lucky ones who got through the tenure gauntlet and the right thing to do when you get that good fortune is to turn around and shine light all the people coming up that hill. The fact that my many of my male colleagues fail to do that for young women is a problem…it isn’t that I am doing something remarkable.

    No, I don’t have to do it. But that’s the result of a screwed-up culture, not a sign of my fabulous character.

    My feelings about lunches, keynotes, and all that sort of ghastly business are well-known:

    It’s a good thing to go, to promote my program, to say thank you to kind people giving the award, and to be a decent member of society.

    It’s just that I am not a decent member of society. I’M NOT.

    The whole time I am at any social gathering at conferences, I am wishing, wishing, wishing desperately for alcohol, and there isn’t any, just iced tea. Who can make small talk on iced tea? And when you are an awardee, you have to look like you are a worthy person, and it’s hard to look like a worthy person when all you want out of life is to go back to your room and order 11 cheeseburgers and six bottles of wine from room service. (That can get dodgy, too, because it’s hard to explain all that when you go to the door and the room service person sees it’s just you in your Powerpuff Girls jammies. STOP JUDGING ME.)

    I am supposed to say a few words. I can’t say words. Not in front of people. I can present research and I can teach. That’s it. That’s all I got.

    All I have ever really done–and I do not feel all that good at it–is to try help people get where they are want to go. That’s my job. And I feel like I screw it up plenty.

    On not being able to protect your students from rejection

    I suppose there are young academics who do not go through a million rejections to get established, but I wasn’t one of them. I think I had it comparatively easy: I was a good and a prolific writer from my training in consulting, and I alway had something going, but I still went through so many rejections that my stomach hurts just thinking about it. But I always had a lot going, so when one thing came back in flames, I had another thing to do.

    Those cvs of failure or rejection have gotten criticized for being the luxury of the privileged, of people who cannot be hurt or economically vulnerable by the admissions of failure and rejection. That’s undoubtedly true. But I think that economic security makes it all the more of a duty to show people the ugly side of getting where you are. As soon as I got tenure, I shared my file and statement with others, with the caveat that their milage may vary. I had one (idiot) point out that my “record wouldn’t have gotten tenure at HER exalted university.” That hurt. But I knew it was a possibility, and I kept sharing. After all, maybe it was important for that posturing ninny to say what she said, a good reminder that what I was showing here wasn’t a foregone tenure case, but a tenure case. And I still don’t regret sharing it.

    Why? Because I had to write my statement of research, teaching, and service on my own, and it was a lonely process and by sharing, I gave people a place to start. If they did like the structure, it gave them a foundation. If they didn’t, it gave them something to react to in forming their own strategy. Anything that makes the process of going up for tenure less lonely and confusing strikes me as the least the rest of us can do for others.

    The same is true of sharing your early rejections.

    I know all this about rejection and the pain it causes. Anybody who tells you they don’t sweat rejection either has a (big) trust fund or a good strong case of narcissism because rejections hurt. Some hurt more than others. Some you learn to realize, eh, just as well. Some hurt so much you can barely breathe after you read the kiss-off letter.

    And there is a whole goddamn lot of it in your early career. Some of it is deserved. You are young, you are a new scholar, you aren’t sending things to the right journal yet, and you haven’t quite mastered how to write for those audiences yet, or developed the built-in sensor that knows what lazyass cheezball reviewers are going to snipe at so you haven’t learned to take that out yet. Some of it is, simply, that journal editors give more breaks to older scholars. I’m a better scholar now than when I was young. And I get more breaks now than I did then. I don’t know which is the dominant effect.

    And the only way to avoid the early career rejectionfest is by being one of the elect–the people who are born under a lucky star. Everybody else who stays in the game learns to put up with it,sending out stuff again and again, writing more stuff, doing work more work, generating content, sending it out.

    Lather, rinse, repeat.

    I hadn’t thought about this problem for years. When I get a rejection now, I have a lot of papers behind me that say I can do it. When you are young and this is your first set of papers, it’s very easy to fall into believing the work is no good. If you have gotten the work past a committee, it’s probably good enough. Getting past editors who would rather publish bigger names than yours is the gauntlet.

    But I am now watching a beloved student and friend and go through the early career rejectionfest, and it sucks all over again. When I went through it, Randy (Randy Crane, beloved advisor) had a gentle way of mocking me out of my tantrums and slumps. I am not like that; I’m too grave. When my student gets a rejection, I feel it, too, and while there is a part of me that knows this is all part of it, there is another part of me that feels like doing this, to everybody involved:


    via GIPHY

    A friend yesterday pointed out to me that I can’t. My student is going to experience this, and there is nothing I can do about it, other than support her through it. It’s bigger than me.

    I do not like things that are bigger than me.

    Eichmann and the Brain-Enabling Functions of Art

    A bunch of ideas and connections swirling around today.

    Yesterday in my human rights class, we talked about the rights of refugees (versus the deplorable state of the practice) and we also talked about the exceptions to the 1951 Convention, and I brought up the case of Eichmann in Argentina. War criminals are not recognized as needing asylum, although many do manage to flee and find sanctuary. Argentina had no willingness to extradite Eichmann, and thus the Moussad kidnapped and hauled him back to Israel for trial and execution. We got into a discussion about extradition rules in international law and policy, and what these protocols suggest for refugees.

    I’ve also been on my transit class’s case about laptops in class. I am sure that some people are taking notes, etc, but some people are screwing around and it’s just tiring to try to have a debate or conversation with nothing but a bunch of the tops of heads to look at. I want people to be present when we are together.

    I remember asking about banning laptops via the USC Price faculty listserv–what do other professors do?–and one of my junior colleagues scoffed at me. “Join the 21st century,” He laughed. “Put away your ego. Realize that students are going to multi-task and deal with it.”

    I took the criticism seriously, but I still had problems. I felt like, with laptops open, students weren’t paying attention to me, or each other. Then one day my colleague came back to me and said…”OK, I just watched my students on their laptops and phones when their colleagues were giving a class presentation. When the guys spoke, people paid attention. When the women spoke, their faces went down to check their computers. It made me sick.”

    Yeah. Listening, not listening.

    We are having conversations about the difference between writing with your hands versus typing. I am not sure what to believe about all that research, but I do know that I am a much better thinker with a pencil in my hand. That is just me, personally. I’m sure there are those who write better at a computer. But I do know that people who take notes with notebooks are much more engaged in class than the people who take notes with computers. Why? I think it’s because it’s just you and the page. A notebook is just you and it. It just collects what you write. A computer lets you do that, but it’s got a full universe behind it. I like it when students use that universe to check ideas, find out more about things, etc. But very, very few students do that. And it’s also something they could do outside of class and bring with them the next time to introduce the discussion if they are interested in it.

    What does this have to do with art and Eichmann, you ask? In reflecting on Eichmann, I remember seeing a German documentary on the capture of Eichmann, and I vividly remember that one of the Moussad agents, Zvi Aharoni, extensively sketched Eichmmann and the streetscape surrounding the house–really accurately–before attempting a secret photo because Eichmann was so clever and paranoid about photographs he would, if he caught somebody doing it, simply vanish to another part of Argentina. They used his sketches of the streetscape to plan the photo capture (the camera was hidden in a bag) and to set up a plan for the agents to use during Eichmann’s eventual capture.

    The idea that arts education is silly or a luxury tends to forget that you never really know what skills are going to be useful; here, art helped capture one of the world’s most wanted men who committed terrible crimes against humanity.

    Art, writing, using your hands and body to create…these are way of thinking and observing, and those skills are useful in so many contexts, and sometimes useful in ways you just can’t predict ahead of time.

    Buzzfeed has a collection of beautiful notes you can look at, and I highly recommend it. I’m sure these are recopied, or created from reading notes; the anatomy ones are amazing. What is going on cognitively when these learners are making art and notes at the same time? I don’t know. But although my doodles are lame, messy and sad by comparison to these, I really think that the combination of drawing and writing works for me cognitively, where drawing eases and enhances the crabbed, linear, disciplined, argumentative task of writing. It opens space in my brain, as vague as that sounds, that expands the creativity of the entire task of writing.

    I’m sure people who have taken to computers and screens more than I have do have different, more effective strategies for using the computer as a tool than I do.

    But one thing I am pretty much sure about: the Internet is really fun. And distracting. And informative. And while it’s useful, keeping it in its place is difficult. I struggle every time I open it. (I’ve checked my email eleventy billion times this morning writing this blog post on the computer, and I’ve checked Fboo 900 million times, and…I hate myself for it.)

    So how’s that scholarly focussing going? Oh, not so well.

    I’m trying to get myself together for the push to full professor, and it means there are a couple of projects that I should finish off or at least show real progress with.

    I am not good at working to deadlines, and there is a definite time component to this. IOW:

    That’s the ticket! “Go back to your desk, settle down, focus, and catch up!”
    (Keith Warren is undeservedly obscure. He’s brilliant here. )

    And thus, I had a stern talk with myself about what I am not going to be interested in anymore. I have to limit my interests, I say. Narrow my reading. Sooooooooooo in the interests of doing just that, I said to myself: “Self: Pick two areas you aren’t going to read in anymore. Things you are not interested in. Eliminate them! Strike them off your list!”

    It thus dawned on me: For years I told myself that I am not very interested in the Middle Ages (life being nasty, brutish, and short, you know, and most movies or books set in the middle ages use it as an excuse to have some horrifying torture scene in it that would keep me awake sick to my stomach for days) and I’ve never really gotten myself to read Dostoyevsky. But…in recent years, I relaxed my ban on all things Middle Ages as I (rightly) became irritated with myself for not knowing a proper timeline of history, and instead having one that looked a bit like this:

    Lots of in-depth, nerdy dates about Greece and Biblical dating, and the Romans….to about 500 CE…then….1776.

    So not okay for an educated person.

    Alas, for a person who has a book to finish and whatnot, good enough idea to let some interests drop. Ha! I said. Back to not reading or learning anything about the Middle Ages, and back to not reading Dostoyevsky. Easy!

    With newfound sense of purpose, I went forward, having unburdened my intellectual life in the same vein as one of those decluttering books tell you to unburden the surfaces of your house so that you might live a truly fulfilled life just like the spreads that House Beautiful promise you, if only you have no books or pets, and exemplary taste in curtains.

    But then there was a really cool documentary on the other night about Empress Matilda (1100), and I checked out The Devils from the Library, and I’ve been reading away on it.

    I am the worst scholar in the world, except for Don Sutherland’s character in Animal House. He’s worse.

    UCLA and USC students collaborate on a lovely graphic on job accessibility

    The University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory’s data on job accessibility by time continues to fascinate me, and I’ve been using it with my students over the years to get them started thinking about how to visualize transport data.

    This year, I got a great entry from Sarahi Ortega and Delia Esmeralda Arriaga. Check it:

    Car Advantage Infographic jpg