The Missing Screwtape Letters from Academia

Tags: musings, academia

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My dearest Wormwood,

It warms my heart to hear that you were able to obtain a post as a reviewer! Humans, in particular academics, care so much more about prestige than they want to admit. Well done!

Allow me to provide you with some avuncular words of advice such that you may, in time, ensure that the Patient becomes ours. Let me start with how you should write your reviews. Make sure to be always strikingly polite, at least at the start of the review. I can attest to the fact how nicely this serves to provide a sense of security (false, of course!) to the Patient. Indeed, you want them to think that they received a glowing review. Then, as your text progresses, show your claws but be apologetic about it as much as you can. Use phrases such as ‘I would truly like to accept this work, but, alas, there are too many issues that make it impossible for me to endorse it for publication.’

Moreover, ensure to mention issues that are not strictly crucial for the paper. That way, you provide a way for the Patient to be initially hopeful. ‘Surely I can convince that reviewer with our response’, they will think. This is your chance to push them to the brink of despair: graciously concede some points during a discussion, while constantly raising others. Strive, if you can, to discuss minuscule details, always shifting the focus from the large issues to the small. Over time, if done well, this will be a large annoyance to the Patient. Notice that this stratagem can only work if you strictly keep your cool! You want to be seen as a polite, apologetic reviewer. Always pepper your responses with empty phrases like ‘Much to my chagrin’ or prefix your responses to the authors by ‘Unfortunately.’

The Patient should still feel hope throughout the process! Then, finally, when it comes to the decision, make sure to never move, not even an inch! Stick with your original assessment, and, in a discussion with the other reviewers, cite your many queries as ample evidence that the work is obviously not ready yet.

Repeat this procedure multiple times, and the Patient will be an outstanding candidate for us.

Trust me on this.

Your affectionate uncle,

PS: Another strategy, for those of us that are of a more lazy bent, is to never reply in discussions until the very last minute. Then, as you once on your keyboard, raise issue over issue, making sure that no mortal can address all of them. This leaves the patient fuming, but my personal opinion is that this approach lacks a certain decorum. It may be as effective, though!

My dear and caring uncle Screwtape,

I am not sure I have the stomach for this. Even for us, this seems to be particularly cruel. I will think and reflect on your words, and I really hope to be able to muster these tools at some point.

Your obedient nephew,

This post is dedicated to all those that take their reviewing and paper-writing seriously. With apologies to C.S. Lewis.