I'm going to come right out and say it: I hate peer review. If you're not an academic, you might not know (or care) what peer review is. Basically, when you write something for a publisher, they will send it out to peer review. That means your book proposal, or a draft of your chapter, or your journal article, or your book manuscript is sent to two or three readers who comment on your work. The convention, generally applied, is that your name is known to the readers, but the readers' names are not known to you. The idea of that is to ensure that the reader can be dispassionate in their assessment of the quality of your work, without worrying that you are criticising someone who may one day be on an interview panel or assessing your own work. This is important of course because academic standards could be seriously compromised if the readers changed their expressed opinions out of a sense of deference, obligation or fear.
But there are risks to anonymous peer review as well. In 2007, I finished a first draft of my short book Theatre & Globalization and sent it off to the publisher who dispatched it to readers for commentary. Three reviews came back. One was complimentary; the second had some serious criticisms; the third was horrible. And by horrible, I mean the reviewer didn't just criticise the book or the argument, he criticised me. He suggested that my opinions were deplorable and the book arrogant; he made clear that he thought a discussion of globalization that drew on Marxist views was disgraceful and, conversely, refused to accept that Kant had any place in the argument. He felt that my tendency not to cite a huge amount of North American theatre was parochial (he was himself North American). The comments were kind of bitchy. Basically, he made it very clear that he didn't like me.
I can take criticism. I mean, I don't like it: who does? But I can take criticism. When you have a play on, you have to learn how to take the swift little rabbit punch of a bad review. Running an academic department, as I have been for the last three-and-a-half years, you learn to expect a drip-feed of disgruntlement from colleagues and students and how not to take it personally. But there's something peculiarly upsetting about anonymous criticism. It was clear from the tone that the person knew me and had, probably prior to reading the manuscript of my book, taken a dislike to me. But I didn't know who. So I was left with this strong sense that someone somewhere, who I'd probably met, really didn't like me. It could be anyone.
I'll be honest; it really upset me. It hit my confidence in my work, my sense of how I come across, my faith in my ability to communicate. It took me over a year to feel I could write something again. And I'm pretty robust: I'd been in academia for almost 15 years, had already made professor. Imagine what a more junior academic might have felt? And it was definitely the anonymity that did it: at one point, a distant colleague who had heard that I'd been very upset by one of the reports on my book, very kindly outed herself as one of the readers. Immediately, I felt relief, although we soon worked out that she'd written the second report (with the reasonable criticisms). The relief when I thought she had written the harshest report is that I could now understand where those criticisms were coming from. But instead, academic publishing seems to be organised through these one-way mirrors that breed paranoia, hurt and ill-feeling.
It's like internet trolls. I don't mind people criticising me when they say who they are. It's when you get some nasty little vomit of spite from someone called BritTheatreFan or PoliticalPony that you feel like someone's stuck you in a blindfold and is spanking you. And that may sound sexy but as any submissive will tell you, it's when the dom(me) actually wants to do you harm that you need to worry.
In part, it's about ego. If your critic can be anyone, then it could be everyone; maybe everyone hates you. But also if your critic can be anyone, they might be the most brilliant and saintly person in your field, someone by whom it would be crushing to be disliked. If you know who is criticising you, it makes it easier to deal with: just as if you get a bad review from Quentin Letts, no one with the slightest brain is going to give a shit, you can always deal with the initial disappointment of a bad book report from Professor XYZ by reminding yourself that Professor XYZ is a complete fool that you've always hated anyway and, if anything, you'd be more worried if he'd liked it.
But more seriously, knowing who is expressing the criticisms is intellectually much more sound. Knowing that Professor XYZ thinks you shouldn't be using Marx makes more sense when one knows that Professor XYZ offered a critique of the Marxian influence in theatre studies in his 2008 book. It allows you to place the criticism in a structure rather than simply having to bare your chest to the lightning bolt from Olympus.
It's hard to know what the way out of this problem is. You can't easily make the writer of the manuscript anonymous; in a field like Theatre and Performance, you usually have a good idea of who it is working in your field, so when an article shows up you will, if you've been to a few conferences recently, have a fairly good idea who wrote it. The problems of deference are, I suppose, important, though I wonder if they are quite as serious as they are made out to be. (I guess I'll find out: one of the consequences of getting that nasty report is that I've decided always to de-anonymise myself, even if I'm writing a very critical report. Maybe this will one day come back to haunt me, but I suspect not.)
But there should be some ground rules that publishers need to ensure the reviewers follow: it's not about you (yes, we know you'd have written it differently, so what?); play the ball not the player (never get personal, don't let your own frustrations and disappointment and annoyance show); try to be helpful (never just be negative, offer practical constructive criticism); kill your bugbears (remember that academia is about debate; if you don't agree with it, that's exciting; if you have a chip on your shoulder, get rid of it); be real specific (if there's a mistake, that's helpful to know; if you just didn't like the second half of the essay for some reason you can't put your finger on, either put your finger on it or keep it to yourself). And the final rule is make nice: publishers, if the report hasn't stuck to these rules, rewrite or paraphrase its contents to the author.
You'll notice that I've referred to my anonymous reviewer as 'he' and mentioned that he's a North American. That's because I cunningly managed to work out who it was. (And I'm pretty sure that, if he'd known I'd find out who he was, he'd have tempered his comments and made them more constructive, which is kind of my point.) He's a distinguished North American academic in the twilight of his career; this means that, even if I wanted to, I couldn't wreak any kind of revenge. But it has given me the satisfaction of realising that he's a complete fool that I've always hated anyway and, if anything, I'd be more worried if he'd liked it.