How to Pass Academic Peer Review

An unfortunate paradox of academic writing is that, if people can read and understand your argument, then they will assume that you have done no intellectual labor. Conversely, if your reader has trouble approaching your writing, they will assume that your work is difficult because of the sophistication of your ideas. In order to publish your work in an academic venue, it is therefore necessary to create artificial barriers that serve to make your writing inaccessible.

Based on my study of the writing of respected and highly cited scholars in my field, as well as my numerous experiences with peer review, these are my suggestions.

(1) Long sentences

Many people drawn to academia think in complex sentences with multiple subordinate clauses and, when lecturing, may take several minutes to finish a single thought. When translated into writing, this style of intellectual processing is generally edited for concision and clarity.

Your job is to reverse the general philosophy of editing and make your sentences longer. The more clauses the better. Commas are largely unnecessary, but you should use as many semicolons as you can get away with.

(2) Large paragraphs

After a certain point, long paragraphs become needlessly difficult to read. This is why writers are encouraged to construct paragraphs of roughly five to ten sentences, with each paragraph beginning with a clear opening sentence that introduces and sets the tone for the material that follows. Writers are also encouraged to begin a new paragraph if their presentation or argument begins to head in a different direction.

In academic writing, however, you need to lose the reader, not help them follow you. It’s therefore important to keep your paragraphs as long as possible. When combined with longer sentences, large paragraphs will ensure that your reader skims the material instead of reading it closely.

(3) Walls of plot summary or decontextualized infodumps

A major element of writing nonfiction is the ability to present your information or opinion in a way that is carefully curated and summarized so that the reader can understand the most important points. The frequently referenced adage “kill your darlings” is an injunction to remove material that may be interesting to you but irrelevant to the reader.

Meanwhile, the goal of academic writing is to force the reader to perform intellectual labor by refusing to curate or structure information. You should therefore attempt to include as much raw information as you can by presenting facts with no contextualizing details or analysis. Extended plot summary filled with minute details is ideal, but you can also occupy space through prolonged references to secondary sources.

(4) Incoherent structure

In order for writing to be comprehensible, it needs to be structured in such a way that a sequence of events or arguments can be understood according to a chain of logic, with Sentence B acting as a natural outgrowth from Sentence A. This also applies to larger divisions such as paragraphs and subsections.

In academic writing, however, each unit of language should exist as independently as possible. Each sentence should be a world unto itself with no immediate connection to the sentences that precede and follow it. In addition, needlessly long paragraphs will help to ensure that the reader will struggle to understand the purpose any given sentence. Many first drafts display this lack of cohesion simply as a result of being unedited, so it’s often best to leave your first draft as it stands, especially in terms of weak or incomprehensible structure. Again, your goal is to make the reader perform intellectual labor.

(5) Unexplained (and potentially misused) specialist terminology

This should go without saying, but the one of the easiest ways to render your writing inaccessible is by employing as much specialist terminology as possible. A writer interested in communication will introduce specialist terminology, contextualize it, apply it through concrete examples, and use it in a consistent manner so that even a reader who has never encountered the terminology before should be able to understand it by the end of the essay.

In order to maintain intellectual superiority over the reader, however, you should keep your specialized terminology as decontextualized as possible. If you have succeeded in creating an incoherent structure, your reader will not be able to ascertain whether you’re using the terminology in a meaningful way, so it is not necessary that you understand the terminology yourself.

(6) Unexplained (and potentially misused) references

Along with decontextualized specialist terminology, you need to reference other scholarship in a way that is opaque and difficult to follow. As with specialist terminology, it is not necessary that you understand the scholarship you’re citing. It’s probably not necessary to read it at all, in fact. Rather, all you have to do is figure out whose names you need to drop and then do so as frequently as possible.

If you feel uncomfortable with this, it’s important to remember that many prominent theorists have large and complicated bodies of work that require years of study to understand, and that few people have the resources to do so. To give an example, you may not feel confident citing the work of someone like Franz Fanon or Judith Butler without reading or understanding it, but you need to pretend as though you have total understanding so that your peer reviewers can feel satisfied in being able to sustain the fantasy that they have total understanding as well. It’s very much an “emperor’s new clothes” situation, so use this to your advantage.

(7) Incohesive incorporation of feedback

If your manuscript is returned with suggestions for revisions, do not attempt to make sense of them. Address each item in a single sentence, and insert these sentences into your writing at random intervals. Each sentence is a world unto its own, after all, and a lack of cohesive editing will help to keep paragraphs long and incomprehensible so that the editor can’t be bothered to question your revisions.

If a reviewer recommends that you cite something, do so, and make no attempt to incorporate it into your existing argument. Remember, you do not need to have read and understood something in order to cite it, and you most certainly don’t need to agree with it.

(8) Uncritical incorporation of racist and misogynistic scholarship

In my first book, I wrote about how many of the dominant academic treatments of gender in Japanese popular culture don’t account for a female audience or accept the reality of women as anything beyond a philosophical construct. I argued that, if we can acknowledge the existence of female and queer writers, artists, and readers, then our understanding of contemporary transnational media cultures has the potential to be transformed in interesting and exciting ways. This project met with strong resistance at every step of the process, with peer reviewer after peer reviewer telling me that I wasn’t citing enough Western male scholars in my discussions of Japanese female creators. Even more curious, the theorists and scholars I was expected to cite were often men with opinions about race and gender that, to say the least, have not aged well.

I also realized, during my time as a tenure-track professor, that academia as a whole is frustratingly conservative underneath its mask of progressivism. Moreover, a not-insignificant amount of English-language scholarship is essentially a celebration of white heritage. There is unfortunately very little solidarity between women, queer people, or people of color when it comes to peer review, as many “outsiders” tend to justify their inclusion by overcompensating as gatekeepers. You therefore have to – you have to – cite white men who were (or still are) openly misogynistic and critical of “the lesser races.” If you are disgusted by this, as I am, and if you try to resist it, as I did, you will be perceived as not respecting the methodology of your discipline and not taking the enterprise of scholarship seriously.

A careful and experienced writer will be able to fix most of the stylistic issues (and issues regarding inclusion and cultural sensitivity) common to academic writing during the process of editing. If you want to pass peer review, however, you need to emphasize and perhaps even exaggerate such problematic elements. Again, the goal is to make your writing difficult to approach and understand so that you seem more intelligent.

You may be thinking that this “advice” is parody. Please allow me to assure you that it’s not.

As much as I wish this weren’t the case, I’m dead serious. I started off as an extremely “scholarly” writer, but I gradually trained myself to be more “accessible,” a word that’s almost always used as a passive-aggressive insult within academia. Unfortunately, I found that my success with peer review diminished in direct proportion to the growth of my skill as an editor. I therefore had to retrain myself to produce performatively esoteric writing, and I recently had two articles accepted for publication only after “revising” them according to the guidelines I listed above. No one knows more than I do just how utterly absurd this is, and I am very tired.

Perhaps you find academic writing and the process of peer review to be elitist and exclusionary. Perhaps you may also suspect that the fundamental structure of academic publication actively works to silence and discredit diverse voices and opinions. If this is the case, let me ask you the question I’ve been asking myself almost every day for the past year: Why are you so invested in academia, then?

Manga Cultures Book Cover

When I was young and stupid, I included a critical comment about a book’s cover in a review I wrote of an academic monograph. Like the fool I was, I blamed the awful cover on the book’s author.

That book was published by Palgrave; and, now that I’m publishing my own book with Palgrave, I know a little more about how this works.

Palgrave has a policy of taking its cover images from stock photograph websites, specifically Getty Images and Alamy. I’m sure this is appropriate for some books, but it’s not particularly suitable for a book about East Asian popular culture.

Getty Images and Alamy are open for anyone to search. If you like, you can try your hand at finding a good cover for a book about shōjo manga and women’s comics in an international context. To save you the trouble, I’ll go ahead and tell you that there isn’t much there.

You’ll mostly find a lot of pictures – generally of poor quality – of manga magazine covers. Almost all of these photos depict manga magazines for boys and men, and some are adult magazines that can easily be interpreted as catering to fetishes that sexualize minors. None of these photographs is particularly visually appealing. Moreover, since many magazines rebrand themselves according to current trends, a photo like this is going to feel very dated very quickly.

There are also photos of people reading manga in convenience stores and bookstores, but (again) they mostly depict men, and their focus seems to be on “wacky Japan” street fashions. Given that this is a book about “the female gaze,” I would feel weird about a photo depicting an actual woman to begin with, especially if it’s a candid photo and the model hasn’t given her consent to have her face appear on the cover a book.

I therefore requested that we use an original illustration commissioned especially for this project. Since this is a book about women reclaiming the way they’re depicted in popular media, I think it would be cool to have a depiction of a female artist in an illustration created by a female artist. This would also be a good opportunity to have a colorful and eye-catching cover, and an illustration would avoid the pitfalls of gender politics inherent in the medium of photography.

This request met with really strong pushback from both my original editor and my current editor at Palgrave, and I had to push back with equal force to even get them to consider using an illustration drawn by a female comic artist for the cover of a book about female comic artists. I’m not going to lie, it was a super awkward conversation to have, and it lasted for months.

Now I feel awful about criticizing that scholar about the cover of her book. It’s so embarrassing, because I was so wrong. Academic publishing is just like this, I guess.

Anyway, I’ve been in touch with one of my favorite artists in the world about this book cover, and hopefully I’ll to be able to make progress soon!

Fun with Academic Publishing

I have anxiety, and it affected my ability to submit my book manuscript about female comic creators in a very real way. I put it off and put it off and put it off for months, mostly because I was afraid of the reception the manuscript would receive. Blind peer review is notoriously cruel and awful, and people in the field of Comics Studies tend to take the subject way too seriously (the irony of this is not lost on me, by the way). There’s also the fact that the field is extremely male-dominated. This requires a lot of unpacking; but, to make a quick generalization, masculinist modes of scholarship view subjectivity and accessibility as weak and careless, and people who don’t identify as male in a male-dominated field can have a tendency to justify their presence by overcompensating and “leaning in” to masculinist modes of scholarship even more than men do.

So I was afraid of what would happen once I submitted the manuscript; but, as I continued to work on it, I realized that it was actually good and important. Even though it wasn’t perfect, I should submit it anyway. What’s the worst that could happen? The initial blind peer review reports for the prospectus were positive, and I already had an advance contract. If the press decided not to go ahead with publication, I would edit the manuscript according to the reader reports and submit it to one of the other publishers that reviewed the prospectus and offered an advance contract.

What happened is that one of the manuscript peer reviewers declined to review the manuscript. The press couldn’t find another person, so my editor sent me the report of the dreaded “Reviewer #2.” If you’re unfamiliar with the “Reviewer #2” phenomenon, it refers to an anonymous peer reviewer who has nothing good to say because they would have written the manuscript differently if they had written it, but they didn’t, and they feel bitter and threatened that someone else did. Their report is generally bracketed by two more helpful (and sane) reports, so they’re “Reviewer #2.”

Reviewer #2 had nothing good to say, of course. They picked out a few typos in a book-length manuscript in order to argue that the whole thing is garbage, said that one brief reference to the work of a controversial scholar means that my own scholarship is unbalanced, and declared that “female” is not a valid ontological category.

I read the report carefully, showed it to a few colleagues, got some quick feedback and advice, and responded to the editor within two hours to say, essentially, “That’s cool, I can work with this!”

I immediately got an automated response from the editor saying that he no longer worked for the publisher, meaning that he sent me the nasty reader report and then quit. Wow.

So now this book is up on Amazon but doesn’t have an editor, and the one reader the press could find to review it said that they’re unwilling to endorse its publication. Oh boy.

This isn’t what I imagined when I tried to think about “the worst thing that could happen.” This is actually worse, and it happened.

I’ve been trying to be more open about my experience of dealing with anxiety, and a lot of people have responded by saying something to the effect of, “But I could never tell! You seem to be doing fine!” I’m not doing fine, actually; it’s just that I don’t generally talk about things like this when they happen, despite the fact that this sort of thing happens all the time in academic publishing. I therefore think I’d like to talk openly and honestly about how broken academic publishing can be sometimes, as well as how anxiety-inducing subjecting yourself to the gauntlet of other people’s egos in the form of anonymous “critique” can be.

But you know what? I believe in this project, and I can, in fact, work with this. Maybe this doesn’t mean much coming from me, but this is a solid first book that deserves to be published! It’s unfortunate that I encountered this small hiccup with the press, but they do good work, and I’m going to stick with them. Starting tomorrow, I’m going to devote myself entirely to getting this book published, and I’m going to put more effort into communicating with the press. Lord help me, I might even call people on the phone.

I think it might be useful to document the process of getting this book published here on this blog, so stay tuned. If nothing else, I have a lot to say about this whole “‘female’ is not a valid ontological category” nonsense.