27th April

The Devil You Know

Rejection is a professional hazard in academic life. It can take the form of a cast out grant application, or a "thanks but no thanks" missive from an academic journal or publisher. Part of the challenge of becoming an academic writer is how to avoid being defeated by failure. Samuel Beckett might well have been referring to the academy when he wrote in his prose piece Worstward Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." But the price of academic failure is increasing. In the UK funding of university departments is in large part determined through the assessment of staff research and publications. So getting published and raising research money is increasingly essential in the hothouse of higher education.

Yet the fate of proposals and written work is in large part sealed by people whose names we do not know. They are the anonymous referees whom funding agencies and editorial boards summon to pass expert judgement. Ros Gill has argued that the reviewing process is becoming increasingly toxic and cruel. Citing a number of examples she shows how 'critical evaluation' is reduced to destructive, dismissive and undermining personal attacks. I am sure every academic will have their own collection of reviews of this kind. Gill suggests that the reviewer's ire is fed by the competitiveness and frustrations of contemporary academic culture. Here, she argues, the person under review becomes the target of a "repressed rage bursting out as an attack


against someone who is not the cause of it... where academics may feel that they can exercise some power -- thus they 'let rip,' occasionally cruelly, under the cloak of guaranteed anonymity." In a world where debates over freedom of information and civil rights are increasingly being connected, can we defend a situation where the fruits of our intellectual labours are decided by nameless judges who are not held accountable for the content of their opinions?

I know many people - myself included - who have pored over a referee's comments for lexical fingerprints, those telltale traces of the reviewer's identity such as references to their own written output, evidence of their pet concerns or penchant for archaic printer fonts. Negative reviews which damn with faint praise are particularly devastating for a research-grant application. With competition for research council grants so high, it only takes one negative review to consign an application to the dustbin.

Defenders of retaining the anonymous reviewing system argue that it allows reviewers to be frank and honest. "If reviewers had to be named it would lead to anodyne and meaninglessly bland assessments," they say. Or, more self-interestedly: "If colleagues knew I had written their review they would never invite me to give conference papers, or to contribute to edited books."

But isn't concealment the worst kind of deceit? "I'd be delighted to go to Rome on an academic freebie, so long as I can keep


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SPRING - 2010

28 April