Eight Simple Techniques for Critiquing Academic Publications
Stuck reviewing an article manuscript, or preparing for yet another graduate seminar? Need to diminish the accomplishments of an annoying colleague or hated rival? Want to appear superior to the others in your roundtable discussion? Want to do these things without having to actually read the whole damn thing? Here are eight simple, effective techniques for providing negative critiques of academic papers, articles, and books.
1. The analysis is oversimplified; the problem is more complex than that.
Of course it is—it’s always more complex. The real world is infinitely complex, and no representation—words, pictures, equations, numbers, diagrams, or otherwise—can capture all of its richness and variety. Thus you can always find something potentially significant the author has omitted, and you can always correctly observe that reality is far more complicated.
2. Deconstructing the binary.
The easiest way to appear thoughtful and astute without actually engaging a piece of work is to challenge the very question or premise it is based on. This is especially easy if the author is using some sort of binary or dualism—quantitative vs. qualitative, nature/nurture, heat or humidity—it doesn’t matter. Indicate that the binary is false and that the real world is more complicated (of course it is—see item 1—and all the more so as dualisms and binaries are devices specifically intended to simplify it). It’s not really about A vs. B, it’s a continuum from A to various shades of A & B, to B. Or, it’s not really about A vs. B, it’s about X vs. Y. Or apples, oranges, and pears. Whatever.
3. Contested concepts.
Appearing thoughtful and astute without actually engaging the work is only a little harder if no binaries are involved—simply assert that the concept being investigated is “contested.” Somebody, somewhere, sometime has disputed the very concept of, say, climate or cities or germs or anything else. A quick web search will turn it up for you, and you can dismiss the work (or make your discussion of it appear more nuanced) by noting that the very premise is contested.
4. Why didn’t they use another method?
This is a timeless classic. There are always, always, multiple plausible ways to address or analyze anything. Whichever the author used, pick one of the others (again, five minutes online will generally turn this up for you). Then, if you are feeling charitable, raise the question of whether the alternative approach was considered. If you’re feeling feisty ask why the other method was not used, in a tone that suggests that it would have worked better.
5. Find a precedent.
This is a little more work, but a good one if you just want to mess with someone. Anything that exists, or appears to exist, has been noted and commented upon by some observant person somewhere, sometime. A bit of digging will allow you to turn up some mention earlier than the earliest source cited by the author. Then you can wag your finger at them for not crediting the pioneering work of this early innovator. This one is especially sweet if you can find one in another language, as it allows you to appear innately superior to the insulated, monolingual chauvinist you are critiquing.
6. Hell, you already knew that.
In this approach, you concede the truth or validity of the author’s arguments, but indicate that they are self-evident and therefore trivial, or already known (careful with this one, though as it may involve background work). Good adjectives to use for these critiques: unsurprising, conventional, banal, trite, hackneyed, hoary.
7. Not a panacea.
Arguing that the author’s proposal, solution or approach is “not a panacea” is sure-fire in that you cannot be wrong. There are no panaceas, and rarely, if ever, does an author make such a claim. It is, however, somehow still legitimate in this instance to critique something for its failure to be a thing that does not exist.
8. Missing mentions.
No one can possibly engage or cite everything that has been written—or even everything that shows up in electronic databases—on a given topic. Spend a few minutes on one of those databases, and find a few things the author did not cite. Then (gentle version) ask why the apparently relevant work of so-and-so was not cited. Or (rough version), go out on a limb and sneer that the author is apparently unaware of the (seminal, fundamental, canonical, etc.) work of so-and-so.