Is Peer Review Bad For Your Mental Health?

peer review peopleI am currently waiting for peer reviews of two books I’ve worked on: one sole-authored, one co-authored. We don’t talk much about the experience of waiting for reviews, and it’s not something that appears to have been researched. Yet it’s something everyone doing academic work has to go through and it may be bad for our mental health.

I’m finding it particularly difficult at the moment because a lot rides on these reviews. The sole-authored book, which is on a contentious topic, has already had one set of reviews. Reviewer 1 was utterly damning, saying ‘I couldn’t find anything to praise’. Luckily, reviewers 2 and 3 were more measured, offering both praise and constructive criticism, and their input helped me to revise and strengthen the typescript. However, in the process, my editor and I realised that we needed further reviews from people with a particular kind of specialist knowledge. My editor approached around 10 potential reviewers, but only one agreed to do the job. So I’m gibbering – what if that person agrees with Reviewer 1?

The co-authored book is in a contentious format. My co-authors and I decided that I would be the person to liaise with publishers, as I have form in this process. The last time I liaised with academic publishers for a co-authored book was in the early 2000s, and I’d forgotten how heavily responsible it makes me feel. Fortunately, I’ve found a publisher that is interested and has sent the book out for reviews, to two professional academics and two students. This is great – and terrifying – but at least there are four reviewers. Even so, what if they ALL think it’s rubbish?

In many ways I love the peer review system. I welcome feedback on my writing, and I’m not at all averse to constructive criticism. I am by no means arrogant enough to think I can write a good book without input from others. Yet peer review, as a process, is fraught with uncertainty. Comments may not be constructive, or may not come at all. They may be positive, or negative, or in between, or a mixture.

There is a body of research which demonstrates that uncertainty has a detrimental effect on mental health. Luckily for me, my mental health is fairly robust right now, so I can use this period of uncertainty as an opportunity to build further resilience. But what about those who aren’t so fortunate? We’re hearing a lot about the mental health crisis in higher education, but nobody seems to be talking about the potential contribution of the peer review system to this crisis. Given the evidence of links between uncertainty and mental health, it seems likely that there may be a relationship here.

I’m not arguing that we should tear down the peer review system and replace it with something completely different. Time spent waiting for reviews also has a positive effect, in that it creates necessary distance between the author and their work, meaning sensible revisions are easier to make. But I do think we need to be aware of the effects of uncertainty and take steps to reduce its impact on us. Here are four ideas.

  1. Aspects of life fall into three categories: those you can control, those you may be able to influence, and those you can neither control nor influence. Spend most of your energies on the first, some on the second, and none on the third. So I will spend my energies on hard work and good fun, and with any luck I won’t have much energy left for fruitless worry about the outcome of the peer reviews.
  1. Plan for different outcomes. Plans for positive reviews are easy, plans for negative reviews more challenging. For me, the worst-case scenario is that the publisher decides not to publish after all, which would mean – for either book – several years of work down the pan. However, that is unlikely, and if it does happen I/we can revise and submit again elsewhere.
  1. Acknowledge how you’re feeling. Writing this blog post is one way for me to acknowledge my own difficult feelings about this waiting period. In professional UK society the culture is not to talk about feelings much, if at all; if anyone asks how you are, the standard answers to give include ‘I’m fine’, or (with an eyeroll) ‘snowed under’. It’s as if we’re not allowed to give a real answer to the question. Yet suppressing our emotions is also bad for our mental health, so let’s talk about the difficulty of waiting, being in limbo, for unpredictable peer reviews.
  1. Practise self-care. All the usual stuff: eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep – or, if you can’t sleep, rest your body quietly in a dark room and try to still your mind. There are some good video soundtracks and podcasts online to help you sleep. Work can be part of self-care when it’s work you enjoy and you don’t do too much. Spending time with loved ones is definitely part of self-care.

The peer review system can also be hard on reviewers, such as by asking more of people who are already too busy, and offering only intangible rewards. Saying ‘yes’ to a review request adds an extra burden of work, saying ‘no’ comes with an extra burden of guilt. Some people deal with this by deciding how many reviews they will undertake, such as 12 in a year, or three per draft article or book they themselves submit. That’s a great example of focusing on what you can control.

If you’re waiting for reviews yourself, the wait will be over, sooner or later. I hope you will be able to use the advice in this post to help make the process a little easier – as I intend to do myself. I wish you luck.

How Racist Am I?

racismToday is the UNESCO International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and I have been considering my role in this process. I find it easy to say “I am privileged”. But “I am racist”? That’s harder – yet, for me, it’s the next step.

Privilege isn’t an absolute, because not everyone who is privileged has the same kind or level of privilege. Privilege can be bestowed (or withheld) by factors such as skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, health, age, religion, and socio-economic status. Many people have privilege in some areas and not in others. For example, a white bisexual man with mental health problems is privileged by his skin colour and gender, disadvantaged by his sexual orientation and health. However, this is way more complicated than 2 x privilege + 2 x disadvantage = 0.

I’m beginning to think racism may not be an absolute either. Evidently I’m not the only one, as I found a racism calculator online. I wouldn’t recommend it. The calculator is made up of 15 yes/no/don’t know questions, some of which are ambiguous. For example: “Do you believe in race stereotypes?” Yes, in that I believe race stereotypes exist; no, in that I don’t believe race stereotypes are truthful or useful. Or, “Do you consider all people are equal, no matter their gender or race?” Yes, in principle; I believe all people are of equal worth and should be treated with equal fairness. No, in reality; a child is not equal to an adult, or a disabled person to an able-bodied person, and these factors intersect with gender and race (and religion, and socio-economic status, and sexual orientation, and so on) to contribute to the inequalities that exist in our world.

The eminent international social cognition project, Project Implicit, has a race test which seems to me to be more useful than the racism calculator. I’ve just re-taken the test (the first time was around five years ago) and my data ‘suggest a moderate automatic preference for European Americans over African Americans’. This gives me some clue as to how racist I am, as the ‘automatic preference’ may be described as ‘no preference’, ‘slight’, ‘moderate’, or ‘strong’.

There is a privilege calculator online too, a much more sophisticated instrument than the race calculator with 100 statements about individual experience which seem fairly unambiguous. Examples include: ‘I am white’ and ‘I am heterosexual’. You tick the ones that apply to you and end up with an overall score and explanatory statement. I’m no expert in devising these kinds of instruments, but it seems to me that a racism calculator along these lines would be more useful. It could include statements such as:

  • I am white
  • Everyone in my family is white
  • I heard racial slurs as a child
  • I used racial slurs as a child
  • As a child, I did not have black dolls/action men/equivalent
  • As a child, I did not read children’s books by people of colour
  • As a child, I had no friends of colour
  • As a child, my family had no friends of colour
  • As a child, my neighbourhood did not include people of colour
  • I had no schoolteachers of colour
  • I have heard racial slurs as an adult
  • I have used racial slurs as an adult
  • I don’t watch films or television dramas featuring people of colour
  • I don’t listen to music made by people of colour
  • I don’t read books written by people of colour
  • I don’t have friends of colour
  • I have not had an intimate relationship with a person of colour
  • My neighbourhood now does not include people of colour
  • I have not donated money or time to an organisation primarily benefiting people of colour
  • I do not challenge racist statements made by other white people

And so on. That is 20 questions, off the top of my head, no doubt influenced by my own experience. For what it’s worth, I would tick 12 of those 20 questions.

So why does this even matter? In my view, to challenge our own racism we need to break it down. This is not to minimise the nature or impact of racism, or to enable people to say ‘I’m only a little bit racist so that’s OK’. It is to help us figure out what we can tackle, and how, in the lifelong project of combating our own racism.

Most of us white people don’t want to be racist, do we? Maybe younger white people really aren’t racist. But I’m in my 50s, and I remember using racial slurs as a child, in the context of a playground game; I remember family members using racial slurs, to describe a colour or people who were tight with money. I don’t remember using, or hearing anyone use, racial slurs directed at actual people when I was a child (though it seems likely that this is a fault of my memory or of my childish comprehension, given how many of those I’ve heard as an adult). I could, then, argue that these childhood experiences represent a kind of innocuous racism, because it was ‘only’ a game or ‘only’ an analogy. But there is no innocuous racism. Racism is not ‘only’ anything. Racism is pervasive, it runs through our lives and our society like heroin through veins. And it is these kinds of childhood experiences of being racist that build implicit preferences and so contribute to my current rating of ‘a moderate automatic preference’ for white people over people of colour.

So, I am racist. Really quite racist. Not the worst kind of racist – I’m no white supremacist – but I am racist. Racist enough to need to do something about it. And actually I’ve known this for a long time. Around 30 years ago I read two excellent books by Peter Fryer: Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984 – 2nd edn 2010) and Black People in the British Empire (1988), which opened my eyes to some aspects of racism. Ten or so years later I was glued to the television series White Tribe by Darcus Howe. I have always read books by authors of colour. I’m looking forward to seeing Black Panther – and I’ve just read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s insightful book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race.

So far, so self-congratulatory. But there is also a great deal that I haven’t done. Far more, in fact, than what I have done. I don’t need to do much, because I’m white, which means that racism doesn’t visibly and audibly affect me in my day-to-day life. My own racism is invisible and inaudible to me unless I make a considerable effort to see and hear it. But it does affect others.

Let me tell you a story. A few months ago, I had just done some shopping in a supermarket in south-east London and was pushing my trolley out through the exit doors. Four young men came round the corner towards me, bouncy, loud, high-fiving. Slightly startled, I clutched my handbag to my chest. They passed me, two on each side, and I saw their faces. They looked so hurt. In my mind, I reacted as I did because they were active loud young men. I think they saw a racist reaction because I am white and they were black. Implicit preferences are known to predict behaviour, so my Project Implicit result suggests that they are right, not me.

I studied psychology for my first degree and I am well aware that we do not know ourselves as well as we like to think. The more I reflect on those young men, the more I realise they taught me a valuable lesson. They helped me to see my racism. I am so sorry that I hurt them in the process. Perhaps you’re feeling the impulse to leap to my defence in the comments. No need – I know it wasn’t intentional and that is the whole point. For sure I am not intentionally racist, but that doesn’t mean I am not racist. I am racist. Not very racist – but not a little bit racist, either.

So here’s how racist I am: I am moderately racist. After a considerable amount of thought, and some investigation, that seems to fit. It’s a bit like being moderately privileged (I scored 49 out of 100 on that test). It explains why I sometimes feel anxious when I’m introduced to new people of colour, in case I say or do something to offend them – because, you know, however much I don’t want to, I really might. I don’t feel the same anxiety when I’m introduced to new white people and that’s part of my privilege. But while I can’t do much about my level of privilege, I believe I can confront and change the level of my own racism. I’ve been working on this, over the last couple of years, in various ways such as: reading more work by writers of colour, reading and writing about Indigenous research methods and ethics, and initiating conversations about racism with other white people. I still have a very, very long way to go. I doubt I will ever reach a point when I can safely conclude that I am not racist. But I think that younger people may, and I hope that the work I am doing now, minute in scope though it is, will form a tiny part of the foundation on which future generations will build a better, fairer world.

Indigenous Research Journals

Last year I published a reading list for people interested in finding out about Indigenous research methods. This is a follow-up post listing Indigenous journals that are interdisciplinary and publish methods-related work. As with the previous post, it is not exhaustive. Apart from anything else, due to my own limitations, I have only included journals written and published in English.

All of these journals are peer-reviewed except where stated. Information is correct to the best of my knowledge, but if you spot any errors, please let me know and I will update this post.

International Indigenous Policy Journal

IIPJThis journal is based in Canada and outlines its goals as follows:

  1. To promote evidence based policy making.
  2. To encourage quality research based on partnerships with Indigenous Peoples.
  3. To develop networks of policy researchers and policy makers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and their communities.
  4. To improve scholarship related to Indigenous issues.
  5. To spark debate on important policy issues facing Indigenous Peoples around the world.

The journal publishes research articles, policy articles, editorial articles and book reviews. It is fully open access for authors and readers.

aboriginal policy studies

This journal is also based in Canada. It publishes original, scholarly, and policy-relevant research on issues relevant to Métis, non-status Indians and urban Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and also welcomes comparative work from an international Indigenous context pertinent to Canadian readers. It is fully open access.

AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples

AlterNativeBased in New Zealand, AlterNative publishes scholarly research on Indigenous worldviews and experiences of decolonization from Indigenous perspectives from around the world. Founded in 2005, it has been published by SAGE since 2017, and is available on subscription. Authors can make their article open access through the SAGE Choice programme at a cost of US$3,000.

International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies

This is an Australian-led journal covering Indigenous scholarship in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. It is peer reviewed and fully open access.

Journal of Indigenous Research

JIR is subtitled ‘Full Circle: Returning Native Research to the People’ and is based in the US. It was set up in response to community requests for the return of information regarding research conducted among their people. It aims to publish short articles of 1,500-2,000 words, accessible to lay people, outlining research outcomes and their relevance for Indigenous peoples. Articles published in JIR will also be sent to local Indigenous newspapers and websites. It does not appear to be peer reviewed. It is open access.

As well as these interdisciplinary journals, there are also Indigenous journals for specific disciplines such as education, law, and health. Some are listed here.

If you know of other Indigenous research journals that are interdisciplinary, or lists of journals for specific disciplines, please contribute in the comments below.

Why and How to Negotiate with Academic Book Publishers

poor writerThe academics I have met who write books seem to assume one of two things. The first assumption is that publishers are doing authors a favour by publishing their books. The second is that the royalties offered are a set figure. Both of these assumptions are wrong.

I suspect the first assumption exists because academics need publications so badly that when someone agrees to publish their work it can feel like a massive relief and a cause for celebration. Yet publishers would not exist without authors. Nevertheless, publishers are hard-headed business people, and they are not going to publish a book if they don’t think it will turn a profit.

The second assumption may exist because we live in a society of set prices in shops, set salaries and fees for work, and so on. The notion of haggling is unfamiliar. So you need to know that the royalties a publisher proposes to give you are generally a starting point for negotiations rather than a fixed offer. In a moment I’ll give you some pointers on how to handle these negotiations, but first let’s look at why it is important to negotiate.

Publishers often belong to parent companies that are very, very rich. For example, the company Informa plc has four operating divisions: business intelligence, academic publishing, knowledge, and events. Its academic publishing division covers the humanities, social sciences, and STEM subjects, and includes publishers such as Taylor & Francis, Psychology Press, Cogent OA, and Routledge. In 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, this division made an adjusted operating profit of £187.2million. Informa as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £416.1million.

Here’s another example. The RELX Group plc is ‘a global provider of information and analytics for professional and business customers across industries’. This company includes the publisher Elsevier, which primarily publishes academic books in STEM subjects, as one of its four divisions. In 2017 Elsevier made an adjusted operating profit of £913million. The RELX Group as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £2,284million.

It is evident that academic publishing is very, very profitable for these companies, and their shareholders. Yet authors, who may work for years on a single book, are to be content with royalties of a few hundred pounds a year – or less?

One reason this power imbalance hasn’t been important before now is that most, if not all, academic authors used to be in permanent academic roles with more than adequate salaries and time to write books within their day jobs. Yet, as we know, these days more and more academics are in casual and precarious roles, and have to write books in their own time. Even those with permanent jobs are often so over-worked that they, too, have to write their books outside working hours. Also, some people writing scholarly books are not in any academic role, but are independent researchers, unemployed, retired and so on.

Authors are contractually prevented from discussing their own royalty rates. However, I can tell you that the Textbook and Academic Authors Association conducted an anonymous survey of academic authors in 2015. They found that average royalties for print books ranged from 9–14%, and the highest royalty reported was 30%. I can also tell you that, in the UK, academic writers earn the lowest annual averages from their books of any type of writer.

Clearly publishers do need to earn money from the books they publish, to pay for their staff, buildings, printing, marketing, and all the other costs associated with their business. They also need to make a profit (or, if they’re not-for-profit, a surplus) to reinvest in their business and, if a plc, pay dividends to their shareholders. However, do they really need profits of hundreds of millions of pounds, from the often unpaid work of academic authors?

I believe we should be negotiating harder for higher royalties on our scholarly books. I have done this myself, successfully, with different types of publisher. Here are some tips. First, forget about feelings such as gratitude or repulsion, and treat the deal as a business transaction. Position the conversation as a business deal by saying something like, ‘As we haven’t done business together before…’ Second, ask for more than you think they will agree to. There’s a chance they might say yes, and if not you are leaving space for them to make a counter-offer lower than your request but still considerably better than the original offer.

The publisher is likely to specify separate royalty rates for hardbacks, paperbacks, and e-books. You can negotiate really hard on e-book royalties. Publishers’ costs for e-book production and handling are much lower than for print books. They don’t have to pay for paper, printing, storage, shipping, or returns. Also, they don’t sell as many e-books as print books. This means they can give more here.

If you get stuck on a figure that doesn’t seem enough to you but the publisher won’t budge, you can ask for a ‘riser’. That means after, say, 1,000 copies have been sold in that format, your royalty will go up by a few percentage points. This is often easier for publishers to say yes to because if they sell 1,000 copies, they have already recouped most, all, or more of their investment in your work, so then they can afford to pay a higher royalty. It’s probably not worth asking for a riser for hardbacks, as they don’t sell many copies, but it is well worth giving it a go for paperbacks, especially if you’re writing a book that is likely to have a wide readership.

Occasionally an academic publisher will offer a small ‘advance’ of a few hundred pounds. This is not an extra advance payment, it is an advance on royalties which the publisher will claw back from your royalties until it has been fully repaid. If a few hundred pounds would make a real difference to your work for the book – enable you to buy other books, for example, or to travel for meetings or to interview people – then by all means accept. But do be aware that it’s not extra money, they’re simply rearranging the offer.

Bear in mind that the person you are negotiating with, usually your commissioning editor, will not have the power to make the final decision. Keep your relationship with them as cordial and professional as possible, and make your case as clearly and concisely as you can, because you need them to advocate for you within their organisation.

In many ways this is the simple part of the negotiations. Once you agree the royalty figures, the publisher will issue a draft contract. It is a really good idea to get independent professional advice on the contract, because it will be hard to understand its implications unless you have specific legal expertise. In the UK, you can join the Society of Authors as soon as you have a draft contract, and specialist vetting of that and any other contract you receive is included in your membership fee. They will tell you which points to negotiate on, and how.

Does all this negotiation sound icky to you? Get over it. You are going to work really hard on writing your books. It makes sense to do all you can to make your books work as hard as possible for you.