May 10, 2016
The Five-Reader Problem
11 min read
by Josh Piker
It will, I suspect, come as no surprise to hear that the relationship between authors and those scholars who serve as readers for article manuscripts is an ambivalent one. I try to recruit five readers’ reports for each essay that goes out for peer review. A not insignificant part of my job consists of finding ways to move an essay through the submission process in such a manner that its author and his/her five readers can speak effectively and productively to each other. And it frequently happens that, as I’m working to do just that, I bump up against what we might think of as the Five-Reader Problem—FRP to its friends.
In my experience, the FRP surfaces in the form of two questions. Sometimes I’m asked one; sometimes the other; sometimes both. The first question is asked by both authors (especially senior scholars) and readers; the second one is pretty much confined to authors, although every now and then a reader will pose it as a rhetorical question.
The first FRP question: Why do you need five readers? The question, obviously, is grounded in the sense that recruiting five readers is overkill, a sense that I emphatically do not share. I have very specific goals for who those readers should be. In my ideal world, two will be specialists in the author’s area and era, two will be specialists in the author’s broader thematic area, and one will be a scholar who has a general interest in the author’s topic but is not a participant in the specific conversations invoked by the essay. A Quarterly article, after all, should convince specialists that the author has something new to say about their mutual subfield, but that same article should also speak to the broader field of early American history. My hope, then, is that I can assemble a diverse collection of readers for each essay that goes out for review, a collection that—because it includes generalists and not just a couple of specialists in a given area—actually resembles the audience authors are seeking to reach by publishing in the Quarterly.
But that brings me to the second part of the FRP, the second question that I’m asked again and again: “With five reports, how can an author sort through all the conflicting advice?” That’s at once a perfectly reasonable question and one that reflects a lack of understanding about how the peer review process—at least as envisioned by the members of Team Quarterly—is supposed to work. One of the central things that I try to do in my decision letters (and any follow up conversations and correspondence) is to help authors make sense of the five reports.
If you look through my decision letters, again and again I’m working to highlight things that surface in multiple reports, and again and again I’m steering authors toward certain tasks (as discussed by the readers and myself) and away from others. In short, authors aren’t left to navigate five (often conflicting) reports by themselves, and that’s as true for the authors whose work I’m rejecting as it for those whose essays are moving on in the process. When the review process functions as it should, it becomes a conversation not simply between author and readers but between author, readers, and editor. And in those cases, there simply isn’t an FRP.
The solution to the FRP, then, isn’t to get fewer readers. The solution is to work with an editor who: 1) takes seriously his or her role in the review process, and 2) has been given the resources—financial, logistical, intellectual—that are required to support a policy of active editorial intervention. I feel very fortunate to be able to say we have those resources here at the Quarterly. As a result, my job as Editor centers on making sure that the FRP never rears its ugly head. If I’m doing this right, getting five readers’ reports for your essay may not be an unalloyed blessing—there’s a limit to what even active editorial intervention can accomplish—but it won’t feel like a curse.
Or at least that’s the theory. Does it always work? Probably not, but does any process for academic publishing always work? My sense from having taking part in the evaluation of about two hundred essays over the last twenty months is that there’s real value added when an author receives five reports. I know the process improves the work that I get to publish in the Quarterly.
And if you’re interested in how the process’s reach extends well beyond the confines of this little black-and-white journal, take a look at the “Advice” column that Rachel Herrmann—who is, among other things, a Quarterly author, a Junto blogger, and a wonderfully engaging presence on Twitter—recently published in The Chronicle.
In “Revising the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Dissertation,” Herrmann explains her process for turning the dissertation into a book manuscript: “I’ve adopted a strategy of recasting my chapters as journal articles — a process I’ve come to think of as ‘the revise-and-resubmit route to writing your book.’” She goes on to note that this “route involves submitting your book chapters as articles to the absolute top journals. Your goal: to get a revise-and-resubmit letter with reviewers’ comments that can help you conceptualize the broader argument you should be making in the book.”
What do I—as a person whose job it is to ride herd on the journal-centered review process that Herrmann is explicitly and publicly hijacking for book-writing purposes—think of her plan? I think it’s spectacular. After all, Herrmann is seeking “a broader set of reviewers who would have the time and space to pose questions I hadn’t heard or considered,” and she explains to her readers what to expect “[w]hen you submit to a journal that obtains a minimum of five readers’ reports”: “some of the advice you receive is bound to be contradictory.” Yes, exactly. And at the Quarterly, at least, that’s where the Editor comes in.
Readers of my “Quarterly Math” post from last December may remember that I wrote, “the lion’s share of my efforts over the last year was directed at essays that will never appear in the pages of the Quarterly. Moreover, most of the work that I ask readers to do is likewise focused on manuscripts that I will not be able to publish.” That labor, I argued, was not wasted because it helps authors to revise their work for publication in other venues. I continue to believe that, but that’s an editor’s perspective. Herrmann is differently positioned within the peer-review process, but she comes to the same conclusion about the value of (to quote me) the “intense, sustained process of critique, revision, and reevaluation.” Excellent. I urge dissertators, first-book authors, and their advisors and mentors to read Herrmann’s column and emulate her example.
And I urge those same people not to fear the FRP. Send your essays to journals that take peer review and editorial intervention seriously. The process is labor-intensive, but the results—for both articles and books—are worth it.