How Anonymous Reviews Shape the Reputation of Academic Journals

Pavlo Shopin
May 23, 2019 · 6 min read
Library. Flickr

In academia, peer-reviewed publications are a coveted achievement. To publish a scholarly article, researchers submit their work to established journals whose professional editors first check whether the manuscript meets the basic requirements of the journal and then forward it to peers who can provide expert feedback and assess the quality of research in question. Most peer review is “double blind,” which means that the author does not know who is reviewing their work, and the readers do not know the author. This anonymity is supposed to ensure impartial judgment.

In the carnival culture of online voyeurism, however, everything sacred eventually becomes profane. There is a tumblr page Shit My Reviewers Say that features anonymous reviewers’ comments on papers which have usually been rejected for reasons well exemplified by the following observation:

“Publication of this paper will not advance our knowledge in any shape of form, it will just result in other researchers pointing out how bad this study actually is.”

When it comes to peer-reviewed academic journals, readers’ reports and the publication process at large might seem daunting and non-transparent, but thanks to Internet platforms that allow anonymous content from multiple contributors, the wisdom of crowds is readily available to neophyte scholars who wish to know the publication landscape in their field.

The wiki hosting service Fandom, for instance, has a Humanities Journals page that allows academics to record their experience of working with peer-reviewed journals. I first came across this website when I was thinking where to submit my articles that ensued from the doctoral research project. On the Humanities Journals wiki scholars can write anonymously about their interaction with editors and reviewers. The website is intended to give insights into which journals are run professionally, “move quickly on submission,” and help scholars reach the right audience. (As is well known, some humanities journals might struggle to find readers.) Furthermore, the website promises to help distinguish between quality outlets and predatory fakes. The wiki has such rubrics as architecture, art history and visual culture, anthropology, environmental humanities, theater and performance, literary studies, etc. The highest number of entries can be found on the page that presents information about journals in literary studies.

The Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies and Theory Journals web page has grown beyond a few initial entries in 2014, and now provides useful and comprehensive insights about the publication process. When I first discovered it in 2015, there were quite a few reports, but visiting the website still felt like a clandestine reconnaissance operation. With the expansion of online communication and social networks, it has become common to give anonymous feedback about various subjects, including academic journals. With the extended website and hundreds of entries, reading the wiki is like entering a democratic forum open to everyone.

To date, the comparative literature category has over 600 entries about nearly a hundred academic journals. Some outlets have only one report, while others as many as twenty-five. If we look at the language used on the page, the word “reject” is mentioned 215 times, and there are 232 occurrences of “accept.” These are distributed unevenly, as some journals have a more positive record, while others are notorious for being hard to get in. The latter can be described in negative terms. Critical reviews seem to correlate with the number of rejections mentioned for a particular journal, which makes the validity of such feedback rather dubious. Boundary 2, for example, is heavily criticized and even ridiculed for its decision not to accept unsolicited submissions. According to the wiki, it has become a “closed shop.” One exasperated scholar writes,

“They want to ‘analyze the tyrannies of thought and action spreading around the world’ — ahh ahem — that’s the case and you don’t accept submissions…irony anyone? Maybe you could start examining exercises of power through tyranical publicaiton control.”

In general, the wiki helps scholars decide to which journals they submit, and may influence the public image of these outlets. Since they tend to have low citation rates, when compared to social or hard sciences, the reputation of literary studies journals rests on editorial teams, authors and readers. Therefore anonymous reviews can shape their public perception. Journal editors might think that this is unfair and unethical, but online rumors could have an impact on the way academics go about publishing their work.

Unreliability is a common concern when dealing with wikis that engage anonymous users. It is clear that the information on the wiki website cannot be reliable or trustworthy, but in the absence of a viable alternative, it will continue to grow and attract audiences. The Fandom wiki about humanities journals is much more unreliable than Wikipedia since there are no editors or clear criteria of what can or cannot be posted. Despite this obvious pitfall, the website can provide valuable insights, as individual users share experiences to help others and participate in the anonymous exchange of ideas. While I do not know the users who have written about their experiences, I tend to trust the sheer number of reviews and resonant viewpoints voiced by different users. Anonymity can be used as a shield to share personal stories and opinions, and thus critical thinking is required to glean useful information.

As I looked through the page about comparative literature journals, I focused on rejection entries and noticed that authors were most frustrated when rejections came without any reader reports or after a very long review process. Not all journals share their readers’ reports, and the initial waiting period can be over a year. Rejection can also be described as a positive experience when the review is seen as helpful. Other times one can read bitter complaints about the unprofessional manner in which editors have dealt with submissions. While one has to be careful not to jump to conclusions when reading these comments, they are highly instructive for researchers as they want to know with whom to share their work.

Being rejected is a bitter pill to swallow. Of course, a rejection from an academic journal in literary studies is not the end of the world, but it does evoke a wide spectrum of emotions in people highly attuned to the human condition. If you look at how academics react to being rejected, their feedback might tell you not only about scholarly interaction in the humanities, but also about confronting professional failure and dealing with uncertainty.

In his essay “Everyone fails, but only the wise find humility,” the Texas Tech University professor of Humanities Costica Bradatan says that “failure can be a medicine against pretentiousness, arrogance and hubris.” Rejections in academic publishing can be soul-crushing and deflate the ego of many scholars. Should they care to come to terms with their failure, academics can improve their research and advance the field. On the other hand, those who want to be sure they fail might want to submit their work to the Journal of Universal Rejection. It has been around for a while, and the joke does not get old as the motto of academic publishing remains “publish or perish.”

It is not impossible to imagine that a young researcher first reads reviews on the wiki, and then chooses to submit their paper to a particular journal. Afterwards, they write anonymous feedback about the publishing experience. Later the author reviews an article for a journal, and then sees somebody else’s feedback about their peer review. Ultimately, anonymous wiki users could one day become editors and see the whole process from a different angle. Thanks to anonymous feedback, there might be long-term changes in the interaction between authors, editors and reviewers.

Another curious facet of the wiki about academic publishing is that it is double blind in an unconventional sense. Readers do not know the people who post about their publication experiences, whereas authors do not know the reviewers who write reports for the editor. Thus, anonymity protects authors and reviewers, but sheds light on the inner mechanism of publication and editorial work. This makes academic publishing more transparent and accountable.

Anonymous online platforms enable researchers to advise others on how to improve the publication experience by reporting on their successes and failures. This kind of controversial communication shapes the reputation of literary studies journals since there are few other reliable metrics. Anonymous comments can act as an important corrective to the power imbalance between the editorial team, the publisher, and their prospective authors. According to the professor of Classics at the University of Roehampton Fiona McHardy, rumors were a powerful tool of the powerless in Ancient Greece, and today online gossip continues to serve this function in academia.

Coming full circle, the profane online word of mouth may gain scholarly recognition. After all, anonymous reports about academic publications could be the subject of reputable research featured in peer-reviewed journals.

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Pavlo Shopin

Written by

The Startup
Pavlo Shopin

Written by

English lecturer at the Pedagogical Dragomanov University; language teacher and translator

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