higher ed,  JIME

My kingdom for a reviewer #2

As much as I like a challenging TV series or film, I also sometimes prefer to watch “cosy TV”, ie something largely without menace, tension or requiring thought. It was in the search of such a viewing snack that I came across Professor T on ITV. It features Ben Miller as a Cambridge Prof who aids the police in solving crime. You can probably write the episodes yourself (or get an AI tool to do it). It features laugh out loud representations of academic life – the Prof only teaches one class it seems, who he treats disdainfully and can create random assessment for, he occupies a huge office of his own, has his own PA and he has no other duties or research projects. Of course, these representations of academia are as realistic as the ones of police procedure in say, Death in Paradise, and not to be taken seriously. But they do rely on the basic social stereotypes of academic life – that it is pampered, divorced from reality, wealthy and indulgent. The recent UCU strikes would not be happening if we lived a Professor T life.

This type of default assumption and stereotyping operates within academia also I feel – in the case I want to use, with academic journals. We tend to think of them as big hitters funded by rich publishing companies. But mostly they’re small enterprises, operating at the edges of people’s time, done as part of normal academic labour and mainly out of a sense that it’s a good thing to do.

It is quite common to see academics complain about the peer review process (I know, I’ve done it myself). Reviews take too long, the reviewer (always Reviewer #2) doesn’t seem to have read the paper, there is conflicting advice on how to revise the paper, the reviewer wants you to write a completely different paper, etc. I get all these frustrations, but let me say that from the other side of editing a journal, it’s not all chuckles either.

Nature (one of the types of journals that might fit the stereotype) ran a piece recently on the increasing difficulty of finding peer reviewers, citing pandemic burn out as a contributing factor. Solutions such as paying reviewers and limiting resubmission and reviews have been suggested. And there is evidence that difficulty in finding reviewers is more likely to lead to rejection. It’s always been difficult to find reviewers, but post-pandemic and when there is an increasing demand on academics to account for their time and be productive, it feels like we are entering a crisis mode.

As the Co-Editor of a small journal, JIME, I feel these changes acutely. We are experiencing increasing difficulty in getting reviewers to agree and then to actually deliver on their review. I have a pretty good network of contacts, but you can only use up those favours so often. A review becomes quite a precious commodity, so many journals are operating more desk rejects for papers they feel are unlikely to pass review, so as not to ‘waste’ a reviewer.

JIME is open access, doesn’t charge APCs (there is a small budget from IET to fund these with Ubiquity) and has a small editorial board who do it on the margins of their time. So delays in getting reviewers does arise, particularly when you get caught in a loop of a reviewer not responding, then accepting, then not delivering. Some of the suggestions such as paying reviewers would not work for us – it seems like a good idea, let us move away from unpaid labour, but many of the small journals such as JIME could not afford it and would simply close. The result might be an increasing stranglehold for the big bucks journals, akin to making Professor T a reality. This would have negative impacts on the people who get published also I suspect – those big journals tend to favour established researchers and writers. Many early career researchers start out publishing in smaller journals which is important for their career.

And being on the editorial board can be tough also. We published a special issue of JIME in which we wanted to encourage early career researchers, particularly those from the Global South to publish. So for this issue we operated a mentoring scheme where one of the reviewers was a member of the GO-GN team who would help improve the article, and the other was a standard, blind peer reviewer. I thought this was a good experiment for a small journal to try. Someone (it’s anonymous so I don’t know who) thought differently, and feeling they had some academic gotcha moment, instigated a whistleblower action that we were not operating a full double blind review process. This was resolved, but it took a long time, was very stressful, and had me questioning not only whether I want to continue as a journal editor but whether I want to stay in academia at all.

I’m sure lots of editors have similar stories of complaints and issues, and I think generally post-pandemic everyone is stressed and this can find random targets. Combined with the problems of getting reviewers it makes the whole academic publishing model feel like it is creaking. My concern is not that it disappears but rather that it becomes a practice for the elite only, where Professor T and his chums publish papers. So, right now, I’ll take a Reviewer #2 over no reviewer.

On the plus side, we have an exciting call for papers on OpenTEL in JIME now!


  • Eric Likness

    Sorry to hear of the kerfuffle over the attempt to modify the peer review. And demonstrably with what you have described, that wasn’t laziness, or bad practice, but good to great intentions to keep a peer review journal enterprise going. One day this plague is gonna end.

    • mweller

      Thanks Eric – yes it was quite dispiriting, and there is a whole institutional process that kicks in regardless of the validity of the complaint. I do wonder if there is a refinement of the peer review process that keeps some of teh good parts and removes some of the overhead.

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