Peer review has always been scary

December 16, 2019

Photo of Cicero reading.

Written by guest blogger Mark Hooper.

If you know what it’s like to wait anxiously for feedback on a submitted manuscript, you’re in good historical company.

In the 1st Century BC, Cicero waited nervously for revisions, which he might find marked on his pages with wafers of red wax. ‘I was mortally afraid of those little red wax wafers’, he writes in a letter to his publisher. And all this nervousness despite the fact that his publisher, Titus Pomponius Atticus, was also his close friend. Not all reviewers are so friendly.

Take Tzetzēs, for example. He was a 12th Century poet and commentator who used the margins of circulating manuscripts to write lengthy reviews—criticising his predecessors, embarking on lengthy digressions, and flaunting his own erudition. In one comment he calls a story ‘pure trash’.[i] Tzetzēs knew these comments would be public, since the publishing practice of the period was that future editions were often copied by scribes to include the critical comments.

In a recent paper I discuss examples like these, and consider their place in the history of scholarly review. The thing we now call ‘peer review’ is in fact a system of things, or a family of things, and different elements have different ages. Recent literature has argued (rightly) that some elements of peer review are very new. I argue that other parts are very old.

One thing that jumps out at you when you review historical accounts of publishing is that they are, for better worse, instantly relatable.

Take, for example, long wait times. As early as the 1550s, Gerolamo Cardano complained that publishers were too slow to review his works. He called publishers egregious procrastinators.[ii] The publishers, on the other hand, complained about their impossible workloads. A state book licensor in Rome declared that ‘the Holy Church would need all printing stopped for many years’, given the size of the task.[iii]

The content of the reviews, the criticism, also hits close to home.  Consider examples from the 18th century. One review says, ‘superficial and inadequately researched.’ Another complains of insufficient analysis when an author fails ‘to give the cubes as well as the squares of the sums.’ Another ‘rejected a legal treatise on the grounds that it used inaccurate terminology…’[iv] Interestingly, these last examples were all reviews by state censors, whose job was primarily to guard against religious impiety. But they’re all plainly scholarly, and they bear a strong family resemblance to what we now call peer review. Incidentally, state censors, like contemporary reviewers, were not paid.[v]

In the Elizabethan book trade, some private publishers did pay expert academic correctors (such as Erasmus) to review manuscripts prior to publication. This was a mechanism for book sellers to differentiate the quality of their products in a busy market—advertising them as ‘corrected’ and ‘perfected’. It was a 16th precursor of the contemporary dogma that a peer reviewed publication can be relied upon.

Anyway, I too wait nervously for “red wax wafers” from an editor. But it’s somehow comforting to know that there’s nothing new under the sun.


[i] Ulrike Kenens, ‘“Perhaps the Scholiast Was Also a Drudge.” Authorial Practices in Three Middle Byzantine Sub-literary Writings,’ in The Author in Middle Byzantine Literature: Modes, Functions, and Identities, ed. Aglae Pizzone (Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2014), 155–70, 169.

[ii] Ian Maclean, Scholarship, Commerce, Religion: The Learned Book in the Age of Confessions, 1560–1630 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 110.

[iii] Mario Biagioli, ‘From Book Censorship to Academic Peer Review,’ Emergences: Journal for the Study of Media and Composite Cultures 12, no. 1 (2002): 11–45, 14.

[iv] Robert Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014), 31.

[v] Biagioli, ‘From Book Censorship to Academic Peer Review,’ 39n19.

Mark Hooper is the Acting Manager, Research Ethics and Integrity at the Queensland University of Technology. He is also a philosopher and learning experience designer. Read his latest article in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing entitled “Scholarly Review, Old and New” free for a limited time here.

The UTP Journals blog features guest posts from our authors. The opinions expressed in these posts may not necessarily represent those of UTP Journals and their clients.

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