May 2008 Archives

It doesn’t take much effort to explain that an article to a refereed journal is best reviewed by the scholars who have invested most time and effort in that area of scholarship—in short, those who have expertise. Even in cases where an article criticizes a scholar’s work, there is a time-honored practice of treating that scholar as one of the referees for that submission.

            However, I ran into some problems recently when I sent an article to be reviewed by a scholar whose school of opinion is critiqued by the author. To make matters complicated, the referee (let’s call him Dr. X) not only wrote a scathing review but also identified himself in his commentary. I agreed with both referees that the article lacked complexity and rejected it, while providing detailed suggestions on ways to rewrite a more compelling piece for TQ. All hell broke loose when the author received the decision letter and referee comments and discovered Dr.X’s identity. Before I go into his case, readers must note that the author was discussing a position I was in sympathy with and I had publicly identified myself with. In fact, Dr.X had made a sarcastic reference to me in his commentary and criticized me for sending articles of low scholarly caliber for review. Despite these considerations, the author was incensed. He wrote back and said that he was not interested in revising the article for TQ and added that it was unfair to have sent the article to be reviewed by Dr. X as he critiques his position in his article. He felt that the outcome was too predictable and, therefore, sending the submission to a well known critic of a school of thought was a pointless exercise. I tried to explain that getting the most rigorous reviews from the broadest possible spectrum of opinions was good for the author and his submission. That only made the author feel more insulted, and he ratcheted his invective. He argued that if I agreed with the referees about the nonpublishability of his submission, I must have sent it intentionally to Dr. X so that his article will get rejected. In short, he felt I had rigged the review process so that he will receive a negative decision.

            Should we then discontinue this practice of including those whose work is critiqued as one of the referees? On the other hand, I can think of many good reasons why we should treat a scholar who is criticized as at least as one of the referees for that submission. Note that even if the referee turns out to be biased and rejects the manuscript, he/she is only one of two or three referees. Not all three referees will come from a homogeneous school of thought. Furthermore, the editor has the power to use his or her discretion to accept or reject the manuscript by triangulating from among the divergent views received from the referees. Despite the possible bias, there are good reasons to send the manuscript to the critiqued scholar. In a submission of such nature, it is important to see if the scholar who has been criticized has been represented fairly. It is in fact collegial to let the scholar know that we might be publishing an article critical of his work and give him an opportunity to make his case before publication. As we all know, authors tend to stereotype or simplify the opinion of the opponent in order to argue more conveniently. From the point of view of the review exercise, the critiqued scholar might produce a very detailed and thorough review of the submission as he/she is deeply invested in that topic and has a personal stake in its publication. If the critiqued scholar provides constructive suggestions for revision, the author has the possibility of engaging with some of the most critical points against his argument and improving the quality and significance of the article.

            Sending an article to a scholar who is criticized doesn’t always mean that the author will be insulted and the submission rejected. My personal experience has been different. Both as an author and an editor, I have seen avowed critics of a position provide balanced reviews and recommend publication. Scholars with integrity are able to look beyond the personal criticism and focus on the possible contribution to knowledge construction. When I submitted my first article in 1993 to TQ on resistance, I was using the articles published in 1989 by Alastair Pennycook and Bonny Norton as my departure. I charted a qualified middle position between what I perceived as the bit too overdetermined and volitionist positions of these scholars and focused on ambiguities in resistance. It turned out that one of the referees was Alastair. He disclosed his identity in his review. (I have a strong suspicion that the second referee was Bonny, but till she comes out and says so I won’t insist on that.) Though Alastair pointed to some areas where his position was misrepresented, he recommended the article enthusiastically. Yet again, three years back, when I submitted an article to CCC on ways of accommodating World Englishes in academic writing, I used as my point of departure the article by Bruce Horner and John Trimbur who made a case for working on policy and curriculum level for changes. I invoked the tension between the macro and micro to argue that we can intervene at the local level in classrooms and texts to initiate changes before policies catch up. The article went to both these scholars for review. Trimbur identified himself in his comments, while Horner mentioned months later that he was the other reviewer. Though both made a strong case for continuing to work parallelly at the level of policy, and offered other useful criticism, they recommended the article for publication. I not only acknowledged the point they made for parallel intervention at the policy and pedagogical levels, but improved the article by engaging with their criticism. When I submit an article for a journal now, I always assume that the scholar I critique will be the obvious choice as the first referee. This awareness helps me represent the position of the critics fairly and engage at a complex level with their argument.

            In TQ, again, the experiences I have had as an editor with scholars reading articles that criticize their work has been very positive. We routinely treat as one of our referees the scholar whose position has been criticized in the submission. We have always seen these scholars respond in a collegial and constructive manner. For example, in the December 2008 issue, TQ will publish a Forum piece that is critical of a position on methods introduced by a scholar a few years back. Though the scholar never identified himself in the review, he read multiple drafts to help the author make constructive changes and finally recommended the article for publication. What does it take for a scholar to sacrifice his time for an article that criticizes him, read it objectively to assess its pros and cons, patiently help the author improve the argument, and then recommend for publication an article that might ring the death knell for his theory or finding? Quite simply, that’s the mark of good scholarship!

            So, shouldn’t I treat a scholar who is criticized as one of two or three referees for that submission?

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