What are you supposed do with unfair criticism?


What do you do with unfair or less than constructive criticism of your academic work? Let’s fix peer review!

We all know, some people are jerks, many academics among them, and that some folks use the anonymous system of peer-review in order to act however they like without the responsibility or accountability that goes with face-to-face or self-identifying criticism.

To me, this is just part of the job, or, at least, I tell myself that. However, while it is most certainly just part of the contemporary academic landscape, it still irks me — every time.

It is the worst when your realize that the reviewer simply does not “get” the point. Slightly less bad, but no less forgivable: the reviewer has not looked closely enough at your work, and, as they gloss over the details, you realize from their comments that their “this is unclear” or “this is inappropriate” is really just a sign that they have not read your previous commentary that explains it 8 or 9 lines ago.

Worse than all of this, however, is that editors rarely — at least, in my experience — take this into account when making a judgment on a paper. On rare occasions, a reviewer might be suppressed, but usually the editor just acts like some sort of conduit, relegating all responsibility in the process.

Has such an appeal to the unfairness of a reviewer worked for anybody?

Is this a sign of a deeper problem in higher education?

At any rate, what do you do with unfair criticism?

This entry was posted in STS Gossip, The Profession, Uncategorized by Nicholas. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

7 thoughts on “What are you supposed do with unfair criticism?

  1. maybe the deepest problem the one of standards (or lack of), part of the bitter pomo-pill that academia never really swallowed is the lack of universal/objective standards of measure for such things. Can’t hurt to try and see if the editor is up to doing something editorial and not just keep the ducks in a row and the line moving along. The peer accountability thing is a huge sanfu in management circles and unless you have some power/leverage in the situation not much you can do but move on and try elsewhere.


    • I totally agree with “move on and try elsewhere” as a general mantra, and be-moaning academic life is a dead-end, but something still itches about this issue to me. The pomo concern over objective standards is well noted; you open the lid of Pandy’s box, play with the contents, and must be ready for all manner of academic quicksand. Still, even with that well in mind, unfair criticisms, illegitimate critiques, or, far worse, cleverly-dressed ad hominem attacks slip past editors. I realize that it would be an endless pomo recursive loop, but reviews should have a review of their own. This would not be overly burdensome, and you could even have the paper’s other reviewers, in effect, review the other reviews, if only to verify that they are, in the main, acceptable or legitimate reviews.


      • I think it’s an unwritten requirement that there be one Professor Negative McSucky Pants for every three readers when submitting to a journal.


      • there have been some actually interesting attempts to make peer-review an open and interactive process not unlike the format that we are using here and I think something like that is the way to go (fewer people will want to be part of such a process which just adds to the appeal for me). But how to keep it from degenerating into the kinds of neurotic personality conflicts and tribalism that plague most comment-sections is a tricky one would need some serious and active supervision/editing (this would foreground the editors/editing and I say good let’s put such interests out in the open). The old business as usual of journals is well past its expiration date as far as I’m concerned.


        • Surely, the expiration date must be consistent with nearly any definition of pomo involving even a loose date; the old guard — and I’m mainly thinking about sociology, and it is mainly thinking — simply have not kept up with these much needed changes; clenching tighter to the past (when data analysis just made sense and progress was palpable, if only in our own minds), rather than finding some balance with the future, some sense that a science that is purposefully NOT useful for interventions into what it studies … that’s tough, and with few models to work from, I fear we train students in the old model for the new world, thus, perpetuating the same set of entrenched problems. Surely, this academic job market and the complete abdication of responsibility from the very universities issuing these degrees is a valuable first step.


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