sociology IS a combat sport
One impression that one gets from the “economic theory of journal reviewers.” Is that since reviewers don’t have “property rights” to the journal that they are reviewers for, not only will they produce inferior recommendations (which may damage the discipline) but also that they don’t give a flying hoot about their job as reviewers. In other words, one empirical implication of this view is that reviewers don’t care nor do they have any emotional attachment or stake on their roles as reviewers. From this point of view, what’s wrong is that there is no true source of (egocentric) motivation for reviewers to do a good job. Not only that, while we should expect authors to be deeply distressed when things don’t go their way (since their careers depend on publications) there is no reason to postulate the existence of “think-skinned reviewers” since these people once again have no egocentric stake (property rights) on the journal for which they are called to perform this service. Their fleeting connection to the journal ends when the review is submitted. Who cares if the editor publishes the paper or not?
Last spring, I remember reading one of the most bizarre things in the world in Footnotes which is the newsletter that every member of the American Sociological Association receives in the mail every couple of months, under the “annual editorial reports” from each of the ASA journal editors. While each report was incredibly boring and humdrum (i.e. “we published 69 papers, rejected 85%, submissions were up, submissions were down, etc.), Ross Stolzenberg‘s report for Sociological Methodology was nothing short of surreal:
This has been a year punctuated by drama. Your editor seems to have encountered once again a small, previously unrecognized, nascent social movement that he calls the Thin-Skinned Scholar Movement (TSSM). TSSM serves the needs of scholars who object to publication of opinions that contradict their own. Your editor believes that the goals of TSSM are misguided, as his own professional fortunes have been advanced by the publication of debates about his own research. More important, disagreement is fundamental to scholarship, making the suppression of disagreements a fundamental violation of the purpose for which Sociological Methodology is published. Indeed; every paper published in Sociological Methodology includes clear statements of dissatisfaction with previous studies; it is this dissatisfaction with previous work that motivates and justifies the production and publication of new contributions.
Your editor is deeply distressed by the style of the TSSM. In particular, consider the following incident: Several weeks ago, I encountered a thin-skinned scholar, who was driving in his car as I walked to my own car in a parking lot. Apparently unimpressed by the writings of Miss Manners, this scholar opened his car window, loudly and repeatedly declared strong views about the composition of my head and the phylum in which I should be classified, and rapidly drove his car so close to me that it did, on the third such maneuver, brush against my pants. I wonder still, is this thin-skinned scholar just a talented and kind-hearted stunt-driver with unusual ideas about parking? Or does he reveal true malice, a will to evoke fear and a willingness to use his car to damage a pedestrian? These are questions that I cannot answer. But answers are suggested by his emailed statement (with copies to others) that he would be pleased to see my body lifeless and in pieces. More to the point, these are questions that no editor should have to consider. This thinskinned scholar has wasted great volumes of an editor’s time and effort, reviled the editor in numerous hostile email letters (with copies sent to a variety of others), delayed publication of Sociological Methodology, wasted hours of time by talented and highly-paid lawyers, and badly strained relations between an editor who sought to uphold the principles under which scholarly journals are published, and the ASA executive officer, who sought to save the ASA the expense and trouble of a lawsuit by an enraged scholar.
Apparently, even without any kind of instrumental stakes on the journal for which they review, some referees take their jobs as reviewers dead serious. How is this attachment to an external entity to be explained (rhetorical question of course, since this would not be a mystery for any sociologist)?