The Challenge of the Peer Review


…We keep tallies of potential peer reviewers approached and right now, our record number of approaches to a potential peer reviewer stands at something like fourteen. This not only represents a considerable amount of labor on our part, it also represents the passing of a great deal of time. We ask each potential peer reviewer if they could get back to us within a week, confirming their availability or nonavailability. As mentioned, there are some we never hear from, though after a week of noncommunication, we get the message being telegraphed that we need to look elsewhere. So, collectively, fourteen approaches represent something on the order of three to three-and-a-half months. This of course, is time that the author could put to better use, rather than passively waiting to hear from us. As we always remind authors, this sometimes-punitive-seeming time it takes for us to secure peer reviewers is beyond our control, though authors always have good reason to see the peer review process expedited. Authors who are tenure track, or who wish to be promoted from associate rank to full, sometimes wish to see a peer reviewed text advance as part of a third-year review, an annual appraisal, a tenure file, or a promotion file, so the stakes for submission to Art Journal are invariably high. Peer reviewers have the option of returning one of three determinations: accept with minor revisions, revise and resubmit, or reject. In truth, the first two determinations are very similar, but a more salient point is that we require affirmative unanimity from our peer reviewers. If one reviewer determines accept with minor revisions or revise and resubmit, and the other reviewer determines reject, then we are obliged to go with the weight of the harshest judgement. For a text to advance, it must secure an accept with minor revisions or revise and resubmit from both reviewers. 

Interestingly, it’s most often tenure-track faculty who undertake to peer review. A healthy proportion of our peer reviewers are at the associate rank, but there’s no escaping the realization that it is faculty at the rank of full professor who seem the most disinclined to peer review. I’ve come to regard this imbalance as anomalous because all of us who are attached to universities (not just full professors) are busy with demands on our time in the areas of service, teaching, and scholarship, so willing peer reviewers are owed substantial debts of gratitude.

Many authors, regardless of the verdicts rendered on their submissions, are thankful to the peer reviewers of their texts, but by its nature peer reviewing is pretty much a thankless task. The process of double anonymity (whereby the peer reviewer cannot know the name of the author whose text they are appraising, and the author cannot learn the identity of the peer reviewers) means that peer reviewing is a type of service that cannot generally be widely or formally recognized. In light of all these considerations, the question therefore becomes, can anything be done to expedite the peer review process? Are there ways in which the peer review process can be improved? Certainly, it cannot be monetized. We can well imagine that monetary incentive, however modest, would certainly expedite what can sometimes be a woefully protracted process. But the credibility of the peer review process relies on the ways in which peer reviewers are motivated solely by collegiality and the selfless advancement of other people’s scholarship, albeit the scholarship of unknown and unnamed colleagues. (Taking a cue from my predecessor, Jordana Moore Saggese, I now see to it that when a related text is eventually published, its peer reviewers, at the very least, receive a PDF of the text in question, enabling them to see for themselves the fruits of not only the author’s labor, but their own. That no money changes hands is the central and sacred tenet of the peer review process.

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers' “The Challenge of the Peer Review", Art Journal, Spring 2024, 83:1, 5-7