The Boer’s Nuts: Concerning the Testicular Logic of Peer Review
Overseeing the peer review process is almost certainly the most challenging aspect of editing an academic journal. The real dark art is not just the whip-cracking that is necessary in order to get reviews back within (hopefully) a couple of months, but selecting the right reviewers in the first place. In my time in academic publishing I have seen some startlingly inappropriate decisions by editors when selecting reviewers, who are often wildly unqualified for the article in question (a certain breed of editor is too timid to aim for the very best reviewers, opting instead to mine their personal network, which is a one-way ticket to mediocre reviews, and also eventually alienating colleagues). I’m sure, too, anyone who regularly submits journal articles has received reviews from one of these folks: I remember receiving a rejection from one religious studies journal where a review started with the words, “As an urban designer I am not ideally suited to reviewing this paper, but…” I kid you not. The skill in selecting the right reviewer comes down to finding somebody who is at once knowledgeable of the subject matter, sympathetic to the worldview and methodologies of the author, yet also capable of suggesting improvements appropriate to the aims of the article.
This is no easy task at the best of times, but sometimes submissions come along that make things that bit more challenging, such as this issue’s first paper from Roland Boer, The Patriarch’s Nuts: Concerning the Testicular Logic of Biblical Hebrew. I knew about this article before it crossed my desk because Roland was having a fun time with it, and others, on his blog. Roland was sending salaciously entertaining articles with titles such as the bestiality- and necrophilia-inspired Hittites, Horses and Corpses to conservative journals in order to see how they went about rejecting them: he would then report back to his readers the content of the reviews and his sometimes amusing–sometimes cutting replies to the editors. Now I enjoy Roland’s writing, and have published two of his previous papers in JMMS, Skin Gods: Circumcising the Built Male Body (which brings a surprising amount of visitors to the journal via “body builder penis” Google searches) and Of Fine Wine, Incense and Spices: The Unstable Masculine Hegemony of the Books of Chronicles. But as these amusing posts were unfolding I knew the inevitable conclusion: I’m eventually going to get one of these tricky articles as a JMMS submission and have to deal with it fairly, and hopefully not be exposed in a blog post along the way as having—in the spirit of the article—no balls.
And so it was that I found myself trying to find reviewers that would be sympathetic to the article, yet offer some rigorous analysis. The first challenge was the pretense of anonymity: most people qualified to comment on the article knew about Roland’s pranks; so the concept of double blind review had to go out of the window, even if one reviewer preferred to entertain a little game of anonymity, suggesting, “let’s call the author Roland Barthes.” But careful choice of reviewers results in orthodox reviews for even the most unorthodox of articles. The first reviewer, for example, started her review with:
I like it, it is fascinating material, a new view and it’s humorous. The author sets out the lines of thoughts clearly, as well as the semantic scope, and the words themselves. The yarekh part I found most convincing.
This comment highlights a particular challenge for some reviewers: humor. From previous JMMS reviews, it seems most reviewers will accommodate all manner of positions communicated in the text—the more horrific or marginalized the better—but having a chuckle is most definitely frowned upon. Humor, it seems, is one of the last transgressive academic tools left to us. The second reviewer saw the value of this at the beginning of his review:
The article is clearly humorous but there is a serious point underlying it. I think at the very least the case has been made to re-evaluate the conventional translations which, as is pointed out, are quaint and at times just ludicrous. Time will tell if there needs to be a wholesale change in translation but I think the case needs to be taken seriously.
And so too the third reviewer who, despite offering extensive critical queries in the original manuscript via the Track Changes function, saw the humor to be its most redeeming aspect, concluding:
I think you have a clear choice. On the one hand, the submission is lively, provocative and well-written. On the other, it is not going to convince any biblical scholars, and certainly did not convince me. The sole argument for identifying halatsayim and motnayim with the testicles is the dual form, which could equally apply to hips or to the abs (also plural), or be idiomatic, referring to the symmetry of the body. On this something of a mountain is built … So, publish it as a lively contribution to the discourse of the Bible, masculinity and sexuality, but don’t expect anyone to agree with it.
The serious point is not just that it is tricky to find genuinely suitable reviewers, but that unorthodox articles swiftly expose the knowledge regulation that goes on within journal publishing, specifically the self-regulation of journal editors. It doesn’t take too much deviance from the norm for people to throw their hands up in the air and claim, “this is not academic writing!” And even when one does not hold this opinion personally, one feels the pressure to conform to the norm—to play the game—in order not to be expelled from the academic club. It is the peer review process that is usually leveraged to provide the regulatory function: editors who succumb to such pressures usually refrain from the honest reply to the author of “I don’t want to publish this kind of article” and will instead select reviewers they know will reject the article without meeting it fairly on its own terms (wasting everyone’s time in the process).
It is rather depressing that I perceive it necessary to be ballsy in order to publish articles that are academically-rigorous-yet-transgressive, as one would think/hope that is the very business of a certain type of academic writing (in the humanities–social sciences space, at least). And, furthermore, if we cannot do this in an open access journal that does not answer to subscribers or advertisers, we are truly lost.
So to all authors of academically-rigorous-yet-transgressive articles: JMMS is the place for you. I promise that if you send me your work I will find reviewers that will give it a fair go. I will send you reviews that offer constructive comments, and will listen carefully if you provide a compelling argument to counter those comments. And together we’ll publish some interesting work, and modestly change the world for the better.