Another good posting on the ups and downs of peer review from the group blog, New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science. It’s a good prompt for us to remind readers about the process of peer review at Society and Space and, while recognizing the extraordinary demands made on scholars today, to consider the importance of peer review for maintaining the excellent quality of our authors’ papers.
At Society and Space, every initial submission is typically read by all four of the editors as part of a prescreening process. We consider the paper’s fit with the broad aims of the journal, quality of the paper, its theoretical sophistication (i.e., the suitability of the approach for our readership), its empirical rigor, the appropriateness of length and style, and whether a redirection to another journal is a better route than peer review with us, given the answers to these considerations. We then contact the author to redirect them to another journal, or we offer advice on how to get the paper into a state suitable for review with us, or we enter the paper into peer review.
We’re constantly working on ways to improve the review process, but at the heart of the process is every reviewer’s commitment to provide timely and detailed feedback for authors. Stuart Elden wrote an editorial in 2008 about the “exchange economy” of peer review, explaining the need to provide at least three times the reviews as one’s own submission record. At the time he wrote the editorial, the journal received about 150 submissions per year. Now, we receive 250+ submissions every year. If every paper put through to peer review generates the need for at least three referee reports, that means we have to ask at a minimum 375-450 referees per year or so.
That is a best-case scenario, and often it’s a goal not realized when people commit to doing a review and then don’t follow through. We often have to make decisions to accept or reject papers with only two reviews, but we always seek to generate a third or fourth review when two referees differ. We might wait two or three months for a review that never materializes, only to have to start over with new invitations. It’s usual to need to ask five or six people to review to get two or three final reports. On the other hand, it’s not at all uncommon for us to have to ask ten or more people to review a paper, just to get two productive reviews. A few papers in the past year each have needed 15-20 invitations to referees, only to generate a final two reviews.
Another obvious issue is the quality of reviews. We most often get excellent and informative reviews from our referees, and we thank them for the wonderful labor they do for the journal and for authors. Occasionally, however, we struggle with how to frame a one-paragraph review from a referee to an author, as the brevity contains precious little information on how to improve a paper’s theoretical argument or strengthen its writing. The commitment to review a paper can be onerous, but the result is always a better paper or in the least vital feedback so that the author can try to rework a rejected paper for another publication outlet. The journal always benefits from detailed and rigorous reviews, as does the community of scholars who read and contribute to Society and Space, and who engage with critical social/spatial theory more generally.
On our publisher’s guidelines for authors page, we state that any submission comes with an expectation that authors will accept requests to review in the future from us. This is the suggestion that Catarina Dutilh Novaes makes at the conclusion of the APPS posting, which generated many hearty comments. We welcome yours here.