Anonymous Power

Scholars debate fairness of shielding identities of those who review tenure candidates and journal submissions.
December 28, 2005

A few years ago, Cary Nelson submitted an essay to PMLA -- the flagship journal of the Modern Language Association -- the dealt in part with a little-known strategy used by the Soviets in World War II: sending shells at German soldiers that contained poetry designed to encourage them to surrender.

The article explored more broadly the use of poetry in the war, but one of his outside reviewers urged rejection of the article, saying that he thought it was a spoof. While Nelson got to see the review (as part of the process of getting rejected by PMLA), he doesn't know who wrote it and he couldn't contact this person to show that he wasn't writing a spoof.

Nelson, the Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, used the example in a presentation on anonymity Tuesday night at the annual meeting of the MLA. Anonymous reviews, he said, are producing boring journals, discouraging risky work, and making the tenure process unfair and unworkable. Others who spoke at the meeting defended anonymous reviews as a good thing or a necessary evil.

For Nelson, the story of his article has a happy ending. American Literary History published it and it is now the first chapter of a book in progress. But Nelson said that he is convinced that anonymous reviews are damaging the field.

Evaluating work without identifying who the author is promotes "agency without identity," Nelson said, and encourages the idea of literary scholarship as a profession that "assumes we will take no risk in our actions."

Knowing the authors or tenure candidates you are reviewing may expose bias (and encourage people where appropriate to recuse themselves), while keeping them secret allows for "bad faith readings." He cited one tenure case where an outside reviewer did not reveal that he had made a sexual overture to the candidate he was reviewing (and been rebuffed). This outside reviewer apparently equated the candidate's rejection of him as evidence of bad taste generally and wrote a highly critical (and unfair) review, Nelson said. While this conflict of interest was uncovered, "secret assassination" is common in tenure reviews, and candidates are helpless, he said.

In scholarship, Nelson argued, the anonymous system encourages authors to try to appeal to what they think will work to get into a given journal, and discourages a scholar from taking a bold risk -- or a reviewer from applauding such a risk.

Michael T. Thurston, an associate professor of English at Smith College, said he organized the discussion after an informal gripe session at a previous MLA where everyone in the group talked about how they had been victims of the "cloak of anonymity."

But not all panelists agreed that anonymity was all bad.

John N. Duvall is a Purdue University professor who is editor of Modern Fiction Studies, which like PMLA uses a "double blind" system: Reviewers don't know whose work they are reading and authors don't know who is evaluating their work.

Duvall said he believes that there is a direct relationship between that policy and the diversity of institutions that have authors in the journal. Over the last four issues, he said, the journal has published four pieces by scholars at top research universities in literary studies: Cornell University (twice), the University of California at Irvine and Yale University. Far more pieces in the journal come from places like the Universities of Kansas and Kentucky, the State University of New York at Old Westbury, Roosevelt University and Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi. And of the four pieces from top universities, Duvall said, two were from graduate students.

A generation or two ago, people might have assumed that all the best ideas came from professors at a small set of institutions. But Duvall said that the job market being what it is, there are lots of highly talented people doing very important work all over the place. "There is no correspondence between the quality of work and where one lands a tenure track job," he said.

While Duvall backed anonymous reviewing, he also talked about problems with book publishing, where the norm for many university presses is to keep the reviewers secret, but not the authors. There are too many cases, Duvall said, of reviewers writing negative evaluations to "settle a grudge." He said that this is a particular problem when you edit a collection of pieces by different authors, meaning that someone in the group surely will have offended just about any reviewer.

Duvall said that he ran into this when he was the editor of a collection, and one anonymous reviewer blasted the collection, but focused all of his anger on one essay. Duvall figured out (he thinks) who the reviewer was, and it turned out that the person and the essay's author had been on opposite sides of an ugly tenure lawsuit. When Duvall raised this with the publisher, the officials there would not confirm his suspicions, but did agree to send the collection out to two more reviewers, and it has been smooth sailing for the project ever since.

Jeffrey Di Leo, editor of the journal Symploke, said that he thinks it is "a little bit deceptive" to suggest that double-blind reviews are really blind to all. Editors pick reviewers, he said, and they pick them for reasons. "We can choose readers for acceptance and we can choose readers for rejection," he said.

Di Leo, interim dean of arts and sciences at the University of Houston-Victoria, also said that picking reviewers with biases in mind is not necessarily a bad thing. He spoke of his concerns about the "cults" of supporters of various literary theorists. When dealing with a submission about such a figure's ideas, Di Leo said, he'll intentionally seek someone from "inside the cult" and someone from outside, to have both perspectives.

Another question panelists considered was why so much power in academe goes to anonymous reviewers -- with so little questioning of the system.

Don Howard Bialostocky, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, compared the use of anonymity in academic careers to the way society evaluates judges. Noting the scrutiny of nominees to the Supreme Court, Bialostocky asked the audience to imagine a world in which judicial opinions were unsigned, in which Supreme Court justices asked questions from behind a screen to protect their identities, and in which those confirming or rejecting a nominee did so in complete secrecy. Academics would be outraged, he suggested, and yet many of them unquestioningly will revise a paper or book to satisfy an anonymous reviewer whose credentials they know nothing about.

Where you stand on anonymity may depend in part on the impact you think it has had on your career and publications you care about. This being an MLA meeting there was much bashing of the PMLA. Nelson said that when it shifted to anonymous reviewing to "level the playing field," it became "a level journal, with few of the highs and lows that are in the best journals." Others (who didn't necessarily agree with Nelson's call to end anonymity) agreed, calling the journal "horribly boring," among other things.

But just down the hall, at a session to welcome graduate students to the MLA, the younger members of the profession were being told that the PMLA (and the prestige that goes to those who publish there) was open to them. During a recent five-year period, as many graduate students as full professors had their work published there (and assistant professors beat both of those categories).

In an interview, Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said that she sees those statistics and is pleased that the journal's reviewers "don't feel any obligation to publish the big names," and that she can truly tell scholars who aren't big names or even medium names that their work will be judged "on the material, not the person." (Feal also noted that many special forums in the PMLA involve top scholars being solicited to write, so a mix of criteria are in use. "Dull is in the eye of the beholder," she said.)

Back at the session on anonymity, one other issue in play is the fear factor. Duvall of Modern Fiction Studies said that he couldn't get the best reviewers if they believed that their names would become public. In some areas, he said, the best reviewer of a piece is a junior scholar in a field, who may be later reviewed for tenure by the author of a piece under consideration.

Others said it was time for people to show more courage about being open about criticism. Di Leo, whose background is in both English and philosophy, said that in the latter field, "you just dis people," and there aren't huge fallouts. In English, there is "less of that sharpness," so people who criticize feel that they must be protected.

Likewise, Di Leo said that people should complain not about authors of critical reviews, but about the editors who blindly follow the advice they receive. He said that there are cases where he receives two negative reviews for an article, but publishes it anyway. Editors need to remember that this is an option.

Michael Bérubé, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, was in the audience at the session and said that a few years ago at the MLA, he ran into the author of a book that he had harshly criticized in a public book review. The two are unlikely to become friends, Bérubé said, and the moment was "awkward," but he said that's all it was, and that scholars with tenure need to be less nervous about saying things -- with their names attached -- that might disagree with other scholars.

Nelson said that ultimately, it's a matter of honesty. He said that on the day of his tenure vote in his department, he ran into a senior faculty member in the hallway, who "congratulated me, patted me on the back, and then went to the meeting to try to get me fired."

While faculty members almost always have the right to keep their tenure votes secret, Nelson said that they don't have to, and that he always tells a department member when he plans to vote against them.


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