Reviewing the Reviewers

So I’ve been pondering a question for the last few days that, hopefully, someone out there may be able to help me with (all comments gratefully accepted).  When submitting a book manuscript for review, is it standard practice to include the names and contact details of people you would think would be suitable referees?  I ask because of three things that happened recently:

  1. I submitted my book proposal to a publisher, including the names of two people whose fields of expertise made them, in my opinion, suitable commentators on the strengths and weaknesses of my work.  I submitted the proposal as PDF files (a habit I developed when, as an independent scholar I did my word processing on Open Office, a format that almost no one else seemed able to work with) and promptly received a request from the editor that I resubmit the proposal with the names of my two suggested readers omitted. Both the readers I suggested were women. (The relevance of this will become clear in a minute.)
  2. I was asked by another publisher to review a book proposal for a book in my field.  The proposal included the names of four suggested reviewers.  None of them was mine, not least because all four suggestions were men.
  3. Suzannah Lipscomb published an article in History Today about sexism in academic history which, among other things, suggests that the process of academic review is inherently gender biased.

All of which has got me wondering about the role of gender in the academic review process.  And here it is important to make the distinction between journal articles, which are double-blind, with neither review nor author knowing the identity of the other, and book manuscript reviewing, where the reviewer remains anonymous, but is informed of the identity of the author, usual to enable them to comment on the author’s suitability to undertake the proposed project (a similar process to that involved in grant proposal reviewing).  Because while, as Lipscomb suggests, the gender of the author may influence considerations where known, the gender of the reviewer seems to me to be an equally valid variable in our understanding of the gender dynamics of the review process.

This is not to suggest that female reviewers are necessarily less likely to have their opinions of a piece of work shaped by sexist assumptions about the author.  We all have implicit biases by the nature of being socially constructed actors, and many of those are gender-related in ways that have the power to make us extremely uncomfortable.  But I do wonder if the view that young female historians are inherently disadvantaged by the review system isn’t making some assumptions of its own about the make up of the community of reviewers – namely that it is a privileged community, so more likely to be older, white and, above all, male.

I’m not sure that this is the case, as demonstrated by both my suggestion of two female readers and the fact that I, as a woman and a subject specialist, was asked to review a proposal over a list of men with higher name recognition.  Subject specialism is the necessary ingredient here, rather than notability within the field, but the other key variable seems to me the willingness of reviewers to actually undertake reviews.  I have absolutely no evidence to assert that women are more likely to agree to act as reviewers – an act of collegiality even in the case of book proposals, which often bring with them a small honorarium in the form of cash or double the value in books from the relevant publisher.  But there is evidence, as noted in the Royal Historical Society report on gender equality, that women tend to be expected to take on roles of pastoral care, mentoring or outreach – in other words roles that enhance collegiality but bring relatively low reward in terms of recognition. My suspicion is that women are more likely to agree to act as reviewers than men, particular in circumstances where they will receive little or no recognition for this role.

As far as I am aware, there is no data available on the gender breakdown of reviewers for either journal articles or book proposals in historical subjects.  It would be fascinating to know this information, although the nature of anonymous review means that it would take considerable input from journal and commissioning editors to be compile any sort of usable data.  Perhaps there are colleagues in publishing out there who may be able to point me in the right direction?

In the meantime, assuming that the standard for book proposals is for authors to continue making suggestions of appropriate readers, in an attempt to challenge gender bias in the discipline, both implicit and explicit, perhaps it behooves us all to interrogate who we consider appropriate reviewers of our work – and why.

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2 thoughts on “Reviewing the Reviewers

  1. Fascinating stuff. I’m awaiting a peer-reviewer’s decision on whether my research article on gender bias in academic publication is ready to go. My argument is that the catalogues of major UK academic publishers demonstrate significant gender bias against women as subjects and as authors, within a discrete period of publication on British literature. So interesting to read about the debates within history.

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