Editors, peer reviewers and authors

Daniel Gile


Peer reviewing is perhaps one of the most useful social mechanisms in the academic publishing institution. It can be particularly powerful in the humanities, where research methodology is not laid out explicitly as in the natural sciences and in other disciplines with a strong tradition of empirical research. And yet, it is often associated with dissatisfaction and frustration, most conspicuously on the authors’ side. This is partly inevitable when authors are criticized and cannot help reacting emotionally to such criticism, especially when they feel it is unjustified. However, there are also misunderstandings about the respective roles of editors, peer reviewers and authors in this eternal triangle.

            Basically, the role of peer reviewers is to help editors by assessing submitted manuscripts. They are generally asked to make recommendations to editors so that these can decide whether to accept manuscripts without revisions, to accept them with minor revisions, to require the authors to make substantial or major revisions and resubmit, or to reject the manuscripts.

Good practice requires that this be done on the basis of evidence, and that the evidence be presented to the authors so that they can understand what reviewers view as weak an make appropriate revisions. A further benefit to authors and to the academic community at large is the possibility to use the reviewers’ comments to improve one’s scholarship and reports. However, this is only a spin-off of the exercise - the role of peer reviewers is not to guide authors.

            A further point to be aware of is that peer reviewers are exactly what their designation says: peers who do the review. Editors try to enlist the help of the highly competent and conscientious reviewers, but depending on the circumstances, their access may be restricted to people with less than ideal motivation and/or with less than ideal expertise in the relevant topic. Their contribution may be significant nevertheless insofar as they may point out weaknesses in form and/or in substance in the manuscript (see The editorial process through the looking glass), but they may also be wrong. In such a case, authors who have access to their observations may have the possibility of challenging them. Editors have the responsibility of passing their own judgment on the basis of every party’s rationale and evidence and of making their own decisions. In the real world, such decisions may well be erroneous with respect to substance, and they may well be motivated partly or greatly by ‘political’ considerations rather than by ‘pure’ scientific considerations. In both cases, frustration may be felt by one or two of the parties – but there is not much one can do about it, except perhaps work hard to improve one’s work until even highly critical reviewers will acknowledge it as good…