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?

We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy

In the spring of 2014, back when people still used Facebook, I came across a post from a male friend who was a grad student at a West Coast school known for its progressive social climate. He had put together a proposal for an event with a female grad student in his department. She sent the proposal to their department chair, who returned it with a brief comment saying that it was unprofessional of her to submit such a shoddy piece of work. My friend and his colleague therefore sat down together and rewrote the proposal. This time he submitted the papaerwork, and the department chair congratulated him and told him that their administrative assistant would be in touch soon to help set up the funding.

When my friend forwarded this response to the female grad student, she pointed out that, lo and behold, he had made a mistake and attached the first draft – the very same one that she had submitted the first time around.

My friend was upset, as he rightly should have been, that such an obvious display of sexism could happen at his Progressive Liberal™ institution. I replied with “I blame the patriarchy” as a comment on his Facebook post and then thanked him via DM for being a good ally and talking about this in a semi-public space.

I didn’t think too much about this exchange until I got a notification that someone had replied to my comment on his post. A white woman around our age, who was a grad student herself, wanted to let me know that she objected to my use of the term “patriarchy.” She threw the Merriam-Webster dictionary at me, saying that, if “patriarchy” is defined as a “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the family,” then we haven’t lived in a patriarchal society for a long time.

I literally saw red when I read that.

Within the space of ten minutes, I had posted more than a dozen responses to her comment, each of which cited and linked to accredited sources of statistics strongly suggesting the male dominance of various political, economic, social, religious, and cultural fields in the United States.

When I came to my senses, I sent a DM to apologize to my friend. He got back to me right away, saying that my responses were important and asking me not to delete anything. I thanked him again and then took a nice long break from the internet.

I was still upset a week later, though, so I copied all of the text from my responses to that comment on Facebook and made a zine that I called “We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy.” Several dozen of my friends (and friends of friends) wrote to ask me for a copy. I also took copies from three print runs to Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago within the span of two months, and I sold out of all the remaining copies almost immediately after I put them on Etsy. I think I probably ended up giving away or selling more than a hundred copies of this zine, which I found surprising, especially given how quickly put together and cheaply made it was.

The world has changed since the spring of 2014, but not as much as you’d expect, and not always in a sane and reasonable way. I’ve considered updating this zine several times, but I always decide against it. The truth is that I dislike being angry. I feel like anger is a tool that no one person can hold for an extended period of time, so it gets passed from one feminist to the next like a baton. I made my angry feminist zine back in spring 2014, and now it’s time for me to step back so that the next group of young people can speak and be heard.

Horror Haiku

In the spring of 2014, I made a half-letter size photocopied zine that collected thirty horror-themed haiku. I had so much fun putting it together that I made a second issue the very next week. I was teaching at Notre Dame that year and driving to Chicago practically every weekend to stay sane, and I spent a lot of time at Quimby’s Bookstore in Wicker Park. I took a handful of zines to Quimby’s to ask if they would take them on consignment, and they agreed. This turned out to be an incredibly transformative experience for me.

I was expected to teach a course on Japanese cinema during the spring semester, so I spent the summer and fall reading recent issues of about half a dozen different Cinema Studies journals from cover to cover. There are a number of excellent independent theaters in Philadelphia (and Tokyo), so I’d watched a lot of movies during grad school. I was excited about movies, and I was excited about Cinema Studies. I was also high off the experience of having finished my dissertation, so I ended up being very productive and writing a handful of essays about horror movies, which I sent to the specific journals whose articles and general editorial voices inspired me.

Everything I wrote was rejected without even going to peer review. Because the editors felt no need to be anonymous, they told me exactly why they rejected my work, and I knew exactly who they were.

Basically, I am gay and I love monsters, and I was looking at horror films from the perspectives of Queer Studies, which was a major focus of my dissertation, and Disability Studies, which was just starting to emerge as a discipline at the time. What one older straight white man after another told me was that, while my essays were well-written and skillfully argued, I lacked the “critical distance” necessary to engage in serious scholarship in Cinema Studies. Also, because I was writing about East Asian cinema, DO NOT GET ME STARTED on the racism I encountered. (I’m especially looking at you, British academics.)

I should have pushed back or tried to reach out to other female and female-identified scholars who wrote about East Asian cinema, but what I ended up doing was crying. I cried kind of a lot, actually. I cried and watched movies and wrote a bunch of horror haiku, which eventually became these two zines.

When Quimby’s agreed to put my zines on the shelves of their store, it gave me the courage I needed to keep writing. It’s not that my work wasn’t worth being read; it’s that I was trying to get it past the wrong gatekeepers. Once I realized that a smug rejection from some narrow-minded older white man didn’t mean that there was something wrong with my writing or scholarship, I started submitting to different venues and, thankfully, getting my work published.

Zines have historically served as a platform for minority voices that have been denied expression in mainstream and more traditional venues, and that’s how they worked for me. Honestly, Quimby’s Bookstore probably saved my academic career. Be gay! Make zines!!

Both of these zines have long since sold out, but you can still find my old horror haiku (here).

Book Editing, Part Five

Today’s segment of responding to Reviewer #2 is especially frustrating. Not only does the reviewer want me to explain third-wave feminism, they also need me to justify it.

Despite occasional relativizations in the second half, the draft is inclined to generalization, clinging to fix (universal) rather than fluid (situated, positional) identities, which contributes to the overall impression of anachronistic methodology, if not a lack of information, for example with respect to theoretical posthumanism as allegedly male-dominated (omitting the central role of Rosi Braidotti and other female theoreticians in recent years).

Okay, sure. Let’s see, I have The Transhumanist Reader (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) sitting right here at my desk with me. Let’s take a look at the names of the contributors:

Max, Nick, Anders, Robert, William, Andy, Ben, Alexander, Randal, Ralph, Marvin, Hans, John, Michael, Ray, Eric, Aubrey, Brian, James, Giulio, Mark, Dean, Ravi, Marc, another Michael, another Andy, Gregory, Ronald, Patrick, Vernor, David, Damien, Robin, yet another Michael, Russel, and Roy

Granted, there are also: Natasha, Laura, Rachel, Martine, and Wyre

Natasha Vita-More is one of the volume’s editors, but I think this is balanced out by the fact that many of the 35 male contributors have multiple contributions, while each of the five female contributors only has one.

The same goes for popular transhumanism. In To Be a Machine (Granta, 2017), I don’t think Mark O’Connell discusses a single woman. The last page of his “Acknowledgements” section (which lists the people he interviewed) and his “A Partial List of Works Consulted” are a big sausage fest. I mean, Mary Shelley gets a mention, but come on.

I’m not saying that either of these is a “bad” book, by the way. I enjoyed both of them immensely. This is also not to deny the value of the incredible work done by a number of female and feminist transhumanist writers and scholars. Rather, this is a simple observation that the conservation is dominated by men and has been for a long time. I don’t think this is controversial.

In any case, the fact that there is one woman in a room filled with (older, and mostly white) men does not make the space any less male-dominated. This is such a stereotypically sexist argument that I can’t believe I had to read this sentence from the reviewer with my own two eyes.

Jesus Christ, what’s next?

Science Fiction is regarded as a male-dominated genre, but this cannot be easily assumed.

Oh my goodness. Okay.

You know, it’s funny. Someone told Nebula Award winning novelist Dr. Joanna Russ this exact same thing, and she responded by writing one of the most influential and frequently cited books in feminist literary criticism, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (University of Texas Press, 1983). What Russ is saying is not that there are not any female authors (obviously), but rather that the historical dominance of men in the field has had a major impact on how female authors are treated.

It’s not 1983 anymore, of course, and things have gotten much better! Still, let me say that, as someone who devours a debt-inducing number of Japanese-language science fiction and fantasy novels written by female authors and has run a book review blog about Japanese fiction in translation for more than ten years, I would give one of my kidneys and a sizeable portion of my liver to see even a remotely more equal gender balance in whose work gets written about, promoted, and translated.

Again, this is not to say that there aren’t female authors and scholars in the field of science fiction, and it’s not to say that they’re not doing fantastic work. In fact, the reviewer seems to be upset because I’m quoting from and discussing their work instead of spending more time on male writers.

What’s especially frustrating about this comment is that the reviewer doesn’t have anything to say about my actual analysis in this chapter. What they don’t like is when I (a) point out in passing that there has been a historical dominance of men in certain fields, and then (b) talk about women instead. If these fields aren’t male-dominated, why do people get so upset when I talk about women? All I’m saying is that female authors tend to view female characters with a female perspective. This isn’t a complicated argument.

I know some people might be reading this and thinking something along the lines of, “Stop being so sensitive! Everyone gets nasty reviewer comments like this. This is normal, so just deal with it.”

But why? Why should I have to walk through a gauntlet of sexism in order to publish a book about female comic creators? This isn’t useful or productive, and its only purpose is to put up a set of unnecessary barriers to publication. Why is something like this taken for granted?

Anyway, I’ll deal with the “fix (universal) rather than fluid (situated, positional) identities” issue in the next post. If you thought today’s dose of sexism in the guise of intellectual critique was intense, get ready.

Book Editing, Part Three

Once again I find myself wading into the mire of Reviewer #2’s comments on my book manuscript. Today’s topic is: But what about THE MEN?!?!?

The discussions of Azuma and Lamarre are sloppy and exhibit a lack of understanding for the central philosophical issues raised (especially with regard to database consumption vs. representationalism, and Heidegger).

A comment like this is unprofessional and uncalled for; but, if I have respond to this level of immaturity, I guess I will.

References to Azuma and Lamarre are minor components of my argument. I address the elements of their work that are relevant to the discussion, and I shouldn’t be expected to delve into “the central philosophical issues raised” by these writers if they have nothing to do with what I’m talking about. This is a book about contemporary female artists, not dead white male philosophers famous primarily for their Nazi sympathies and affiliation.

Listen, I’m just saying. Maybe “a lack of understanding” of Heidegger isn’t a bad thing.

My argument is essentially that women are not just fictional characters. Many prominent male theorists – Azuma among them – make grand sweeping claims about media production and consumption without ever considering female creators and fans. If we can accept that women exist as producers and consumers in the real world, then we can shift our understanding of these theories accordingly.

Ironically, the five or six pages I devote to a close reading of Azuma are probably the most rigorously peer-reviewed section of the entire manuscript. I published them first as a book review, which went through multiple drafts with the primary editor of a major journal in the field of Japanese Studies. I then published them as a part of my dissertation, which was also commented on by a number of prominent scholars in the field. I went on to publish that chapter in another major journal, and it went through an extensive peer-review process. And then, after all of that, I still had to field questions from senior (male) scholars at conference presentations and job talks.

I’m not criticizing Azuma; I’m just making an observation that the only women he discusses in the work that’s been translated into English and widely circulated in English-language academic circles are fictional. This is not rocket science.

All I’m saying is that female creators and fans exist, and I don’t understand why it upsets so many people to acknowledge the existence of actual women in media theories.

I’m tired of having to explain this, to be honest.

But wait! There’s more:

Surprisingly, Lamarre’s concept of “male/female mode of address” is not considered.

I have an even bigger surprise! This very concept is discussed for five pages in my second chapter! With a lot of quotes and analysis! Wow!! It’s almost as if it’s the reviewer’s report that’s sloppy, not my actual manuscript.

Lamarre writes in an infamously opaque style, but it’s worth summarizing what his “concept of ‘male/female mode of address’” refers to. Basically, within the artistic conventions of anime, men are active and associated with science and progress, and women are passive and associated with feelings and tradition. Lamarre is more or less basing this theory on the fictional characters in one animated movie, and he applies the general theory to a tiny handful of other titles. This sort of dualism is sexist by definition, and Lamarre really leans into it.

Again, my reaction is a friendly reminder that women are not just fictional characters but exist in the real world as media creators themselves. Lamarre discusses the anime series Chobits while treating women as abstract concepts and empty symbols, and my response is that it’s worth considering that the original manga was written by a team of four women and extremely popular with a female readership.

The entire point of this book about “Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze” is that women are not just abstract concepts in the minds of male writers and artists. This reviewer apparently doesn’t see the value in this concept and thinks I should spend more time talking about men.

I have to ask – why was a person like this chosen to review my manuscript?

This is generally why a press asks at least two people to serve as peer reviewers. If one reviewer makes an inaccurate observation – because we all do; it’s not like we’re compensated for this sort of professional service, after all – then the other reviewer can balance out their blind spots and biases. I think it’s fair to say that it’s a major failing of my original editor at Palgrave to only ask for the opinion of this reviewer.

I resent having to treat this sort of lazy sexism as a valid critique. It’s not productive; and, more importantly, it’s hurtful and dehumanizing.