Origins of Courteous Review

Stephen Jaeger shares a letter from 2010 in which he asked the Medieval Academy of America (MAA) to reconsider the reviewing practices of its scholarly publication, Speculum. Addressed to the Executive Committee of the MAA, the letter describes some of Prof. Jaeger’s experiences with anonymous peer review in Speculum, and encourages the adoption of a more open process of evaluation, such as the ones modeled by the editors of Shakespeare Quarterly and postmedieval—bM

August 24th, 2010

Dear Colleagues,
I’m sending a copy of an article on the front page of today’s New York Times on new alternatives to peer review. I would urge the leadership of the academy and the editor and board of Speculum to take its message seriously and consider a change in its current policy of anonymous peer review.

My long and largely unhappy experience with peer review in Speculum has set my own policy: never to review anonymously, but always to sign. It makes reviews more objective and more courteous. Of course, that’s what it means to attach your name to your work: I stand behind it and am willing to state my opinion publicly.

The main justification for anonymous review has always seemed to me dubious in the extreme: “Anonymity can help prevent personal bias” (quoting a defender of anonymous review in the NYT article). I would argue that it facilitates far more than it hedges personal bias. My experience is that anonymous reviewing favors discourtesy and creates a free zone for the reviewer to assert vested positions and prevent publication of ideas that don’t correspond to them. Imagine anonymous expert testimony permitted in the context of judicial proceedings. It’s out of the question, because it opens the door to the worst kind of abuse and betrayal of, not adherence to, objectivity.

That is, of course, the worst case take on it, but it corresponds to my experience submitting to Speculum. My early impressions of the Medieval Academy were that it is a gentleman’s club of East Coast historians and Anglicists. Had I credited my early dealings with Speculum, I would have given up scholarship or retreated to a far more cautious and conservative kind of research, stuck to my own field and to journals that publish exclusively in that field.

Briefly: my first two submissions to Speculum were turned down with harsh and dismissive reviews. The first was eventually published in Speculum much changed, with a specialized reading from a colleague in my own field who knew me personally. It developed into my book Origins of Courtliness (1985). The second, which received two extensive rejections and one brief dismissive one (in effect “don’t bother”) was published virtually unchanged in a German journal, and developed into my book The Envy of Angels (1994).

The treatment of an article published in Speculum in 2003 (“Pessimism in the Twelfth Century Renaissance”) is especially instructive. It received a negative review from an anonymous reviewer. The editor, Rick Emmerson, overrode the specialized reviewer, and published it. About a month after it appeared, I received an apologetic note from the anonymous reviewer, whom I know personally, congratulating me on the article and confessing that he had not read it closely. While his anonymous review was not discourteous, it was careless, and the editor’s judgment was the only thing that rescued it for Speculum. I believe that that anonymous reviewer would have read more carefully if he had felt personal responsibility for what he wrote.

While my own experience with Speculum may not be typical, it does represent the problems of someone working in a field not his own with ideas not canonized. I believe that the lesson from my experience is that a system of anonymous peer review tends to work against scholarship that runs against the grain of currently accepted ideas. It also allows a level of discourtesy that no one, or only very few grouches, would indulge in, if they operated openly.

Another lesson is that anonymous reviews must be read by the editor and reported to the author judiciously. If the editor simply accepts specialized judgments as sacrosanct because of the expertise of the reviewer, the system opens the door to the biases of the expert reader, which in some, perhaps many, cases grow and harden as the expertise of the reader increases.

I urge the leadership of the Medieval Academy to read the NYTimes article and the literature it cites on the issue closely, and to consider revising its present policy on anonymous peer review. The system of open web review described in the NYTimes article seems to me very well conceived.

Cordially,
C. Stephen Jaeger
Professor emeritus, Germanic Lang. & Lit., Comparative Literature
University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign


An article in the Chronicle discusses the “partially open review” of Shakespeare Quarterly, while the system of “crowd review” used by postmedieval is described on the publisher’s website. Elsewhere, Kathleen Fitzpatrick employed an open process of review for her book, Planned Obsolesence (2011), which is now available in print.

Read more about peer review on the IPRH blog, and visit the archive of Peer Review, Revealed!, in which we share the best and worst of your readers’ reports and book reviews. Contributions related to the theme of Publication may be sent to Bonnie Mak, the blog editor for AY 2013/14.

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8 Responses to Origins of Courteous Review

  1. Eileen Joy says:

    A real debt of gratitude to Stephen Jaeger and also Bonnie Mak for making this letter public.

  2. balimaha says:

    Reblogged this on Reflecting Allowed and commented:
    “a system of anonymous peer review tends to work against scholarship that runs against the grain of currently accepted ideas” – great post on open peer review vs. anonymous peer review

  3. balimaha says:

    Loved this. I am a big advocate of open peer review and this article makes a very well-thought-out argument for it, from someone coming from a traditional field – I hope more people start considering this

  4. Prince Jasper says:

    There’s a great deal to be said for the use of real names, especially in an era of instantaneous feedback via the internet, where anonymity tends to bring out the worst in people. That said, there’s also a great deal to be said for anonymity in certain contexts. My own experience has consisted of a great deal of useful feedback, both positive and critical, and almost universally courteous (or at least not rude): in 20-some years, exactly one dismissive, hostile review (one that essentially said, “I don’t care for this kind of work.”) But anecdotes aren’t data, neither my own nor Prof. Jaeger’s. In particular, if a junior scholar disagreed with an eminent and highly respected full professor—like Prof. Jaeger—he or she would have to either trust that courteous disagreement would go both ways, or elect to review anonymously. And very often, our most junior and precarious colleagues have the most important things to say. So, hooray for the courteous review, but keep anonymity as an important and respected option.

  5. Pingback: Learning Tech -talk | Value versus risk in anonymous review

  6. Monika Otter says:

    This argues for reviewers giving their names. How about anonymous submission, though? To level the playing field between the well-known, well-connected, established scholars and the ones still trying to get that way?

  7. Pingback: The Week in Early American History « The Junto

  8. Thomas Crofts says:

    Thank you, thank you for this.

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