by Dr. Jem Tosh
(Content warning: discussion of transphobia, racism, ableism, being 'outed', one brief mention of su*cide)
I'm currently working on a new online course on how to write your first book and get it published, and in the section on addressing fears there is a fairly large section on fear of criticism. Experiences with or fears around receiving harsh feedback abound in academia, especially for early career academics and those starting out their publishing career. I often find myself providing advice and support in this area, such as sharing my story about the time I received two negative reviews and I sent the editor a 17-page response on why those two reviews were wrong. Not only did they accept the piece to be published, they offered me a larger word count to expand the original analysis even further. Harsh feedback doesn't need to be the rejection it appears to be, sometimes it can be your opportunity to shine.
I received two negative reviews and I sent the editor a 17-page response on why those two reviews were wrong.
Here is some of my general advice around receiving harsh reviews in academia, with a focus on experiences of marginalised writers, but each case is unique so please take what feels useful, get extra advice on what you're not sure about, and disregard what doesn't feel relevant to you.
Is this feedback or is this hateful and/or unprofessional?
First off, let's take a moment to check whether this is even something that you should be dealing with. It's an important role for the editor of any publication to review the feedback they get and evaluate whether or not it is appropriate. They should stop hateful and unprofessional reviews at the door - but they often don't. Why? This can be a combination of (1) a lack of time, as editing can be another form of unpaid academic labour in an already overburdened profession, (2) a lack of awareness of what is harmful as the paper is not in their own area of expertise (or they may share the harmful views of the reviewer), and (3) due to the promotion of the problematic concept of 'objectivity' in psychology and academia more generally. This can lead to some editors feeling that their role is to take a step back and allow all feedback to be considered. They may also struggle to find appropriate reviewers due to academics having high workloads and precarious employment that means unpaid academic labour is getting harder and harder to accomodate.
Unfortunately this can lead to trans authors receiving transphobic reviews, black authors having to read through racist reviews, and disabled authors spending time responding to ableist comments, and so on. It adds an extra layer of unpaid labour - one that is emotionally draining and full of microaggressions and outright hostility - that is not only unnecessary and harmful, but disproportionately impacts on marginalised academics.
First off, let's take a moment to check whether this is even something that you should be dealing with.
Strategies: (1) Remove the hateful comments from the document and focus only on helpful comments (if there are any) and explain to the editor why those changes were not made to the paper/chapter, (2) Request an alternative review stating that this reviewer has been unprofessional, inappropriate, and/or in breach of professional guidance, (3) Withdraw the piece and add that publication to your list of spaces that are unsafe for marginalised authors. This can feel scary for some, but there are thousands of places you can publish, and even if something feels really important (like a special issues) there will always be other opportunities. You don't need to force yourself to publish in a space that feels unwelcoming or unsafe.
Is the feedback really upsetting?
One of the worst pieces of feedback I received about my work was when a reviewer stated that they didn't know how to evaluate my analysis without knowing my personal identity and social positioning. While I appreciate the importance of reflexivity in research, the assumption that it is necessary to know whether I'm cis or trans when I'm talking about psychology and gender nonconformity (and that enforcement of another binary onto a nonbinary author) shouldn't be at the forefront of a review - the argument and analysis I am making should be the focus.
I strongly believe that no author should ever be put in a position where they have to disclose personal information, either about who they are or what they have survived, to have their work published or fairly reviewed.
This pressure to be 'out' in a transphobic context, one that comes with risks of exclusion, discrimination, rejection, and violence, should be taken into account when making requests about people's own personal experiences with gender and with which lens they are approaching material for analysis. I had stated that I was drawing on trans inclusive feminism but that wasn't enough. My personal information was seen as an imperative part of the work.
I felt sick. It was like they didn't know whether my work was of value or not until they knew what kind of person I was. I see this too often in hostility regarding gender neutral pronouns and androgynous appearance - "But I don't know how to treat you, until I know 'what' you are" betrays the speaker's unequal treatment of people based on their gender. My gender shouldn't make my work more or less valid.
My 'academic coming out' felt non-consensual, something that I think is abhorrent in a feminist space and one that includes a focus on violence, abuse, and consent, and the (*Link discusses su*cide) well-documented harms of forced 'outing'. I made a decision to be 'out' because I couldn't bear to receive this kind of feedback again, but I strongly believe that no author should ever be put in a position where they have to disclose personal information, either about who they are or what they have survived, to have their work published or fairly reviewed.
I have also received reviews that told me 'most Irish people are alcoholics' in my work on anti-Irish discourses in Britain - as an Irish author. These hateful and harmful reviews can lead to emotional pain and distress that needs support and healing. So, in addition to working on feedback regarding the publication, marginalised folks can also need to consider how else to support themselves in this current (and problematic) publishing context.
Feedback doesn't need to be about your identity to be upsetting, harsh reviews can bring up other difficult emotions that can stem from childhood experiences, like feelings of rejection, failure, and not being good enough. These are also areas where extra emotional support can be helpful.
Strategies: (1) Get support from friends, family, local organisations, or your community, (2) Reach out to a therapist to work through particularly upsetting aspects of the review that are bringing up other memories or difficult experiences for you, (3) Work on your professional boundaries and decide what you are comfortable sharing and in what context.
Is the feedback potentially helpful but communicated in a hostile way?
Sometimes a helpful point gets lost in a sea of hostility. This can make it difficult to ascertain whether it's a genuinely useful point or just something that pisses you off. In one review that I received that was very problematic, there was one point that was very useful, and after I leaned into that piece of criticism, my work improved significantly. The problem was that I really didn't want to take advice from this a**hole.
It can be useful to reflect on your reaction to the hostility - is it that the point is valid but it hit a nerve? Is the reviewer writing in a very blunt way and you needed this communicated more softly because you're still learning or feeling insecure about your work or writing? Does the reviewer have a chip on their shoulder and you're getting the brunt of that because of the anonymity that the review process provides? This process of separating the content of the review from the form it takes can take time and multiple perspectives. It can be like the review becomes another text to analyse.
Strategies: (1) Get a second opinion - if only the harsh reviewer mentioned it, maybe they're wrong, (2) Put the review away and come back to it later when your immediate response to the hostility has dissipated, (3) Ask a friend, colleague, or supervisor to paraphrase the feedback to you so that you can work on it without having to filter out the hostility yourself. This should be easier for them to do because it is not personal to their work, and you can reciprocate at a later time.
Is the feedback just useless or unhelpful?
Sometimes you get the awful experience of pouring your life and soul into a great qualitative paper that you're really proud of, only to get ridiculous comments that literally make no sense from a quantitative reviewer. Other times it can be that the piece was sent to a student who is still learning about the topic and the feedback just isn't all that helpful. This can be frustrating because you have missed out on an opportunity to get quality feedback to improve your work, and it can be time-consuming to read through and respond to comments that really don't mean a whole lot. On the plus side though, while potentially boring and irritating, this kind of harsh feedback shouldn't be too upsetting.
Strategies: (1) Ignore the useless comments and explain to the editor that those comments were not responded to because they were irrelevant and reflected a lack of understanding of the methodology, (2) Request an alternative review from a qualitative reviewer, (3) Submit the piece elsewhere, to somewhere that has more experience with your methodology, (4) Laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
Check Out the Publication's Reputation
Ask people who are doing similar work to you what kind of experiences they have had with that journal or publisher. This is a key way of finding out what happens 'behind the scenes' and what publications like to appear inclusive and supportive, but can actually be quite hostile or exclusionary. Others working in the same area can also recommend alternative publishing spaces that they have had good experiences with.
You can send editors suggested reviewers - just make sure that they aren't your best friend or office buddy. You want the feedback to be useful to make your work even better than it already is, but at the same time you don't want it reviewed by someone who is just going to waste your time because they are unfamiliar with your topic or methodology. You can also explain to the editor why the reviewer choice is important - such as your paper discussing a polarising topic that can attract hostility in the profession.
Test the Water
Try submitting something smaller and shorter but with the same focus. Perhaps a book review or a short letter to the editor. If you get hostile responses or the perspective isn't appreciated, it's unlikely that a larger submission will receive a better response.
It doesn't have to be like this. We need:
Clear guidance on appropriate communication when reviewing
Editors filtering unprofessional, hostile, and/or hateful reviews (and reviewers)
Editors not sending out unprofessional, hostile, and/or hateful articles for review
An emphasis on constructive, supportive feedback
Authors, Reviewers, and Editors to be paid for their labour
Need more advice or support about a harsh review? You can book a one-to-one consultation with me below.