This week’s post is the final in a four part series where Xan and J share experience and tips managing academic publication and reviewing. In this post, Xan provides tips for being a good reviewer.
Hello readers! Xan here again for our second of two posts on peer review. Last week I shared my thoughts on how peer review often goes wrong, as well as some general discussion on how it can go entirely right. This week, I’m following up with specific strategies to help you write awesome peer reviews that will support your fellow scholars in doing great work while also building your reputation as a professional.
Becoming a great peer reviewer is first and foremost about finding meaningful ways to connect with and support your fellow scholars when you can’t show your face or tell them your name. To do this effectively requires remembering one thing first and foremost, which brings me to my first suggestion to help you become the best reviewer you can be.
- Remember that today’s peer reviewers are tomorrow’s authors…and vice versa.
We all dream of receiving kind, thoughtful reviews that help us get to the top of our game as writers and thinkers. We can also probably point to at least a few examples from our careers where reviewers did exactly that, regardless of what the journal editor’s final decision was. Those reviews are the real game-changers, yet they are unnecessarily rare. It’s easier to write a thoughtful and constructive review—especially in cases where you have serious concerns about the methods or findings in a paper—if you remember that the authors truly are your peers. It’s easier still if you stop to think that tomorrow the tables may turn, and the same people might be reviewing one of your own papers. Model your reviews after the kind of feedback you yourself wish to receive!
- Read every word of the manuscript with care and consideration.
In academia as well as the applied world, we are often required to read and digest huge amounts of text in small amounts of time. This is a great skill to have, but there are some specific ways to apply it that will help you get the most out of a first manuscript reading so that you can write a really dynamite review. Ordinarily I am the supreme overlord of reading electronically, but I never do this for a peer review. Why? Reading in hard copy helps me to savor every word of the manuscript as if I were reading a favorite poem, and to think about all the ways in which I could possibly interpret each phrase. This is crucial to writing excellent peer reviews, not only because it gives you a phenomenally solid grasp of the manuscript content, but also because it makes giving authors the benefit of the doubt much easier. How many times have you received a review in which you were asked to do something that you’d already done quite explicitly in your first draft—or worse, attacked for not doing that thing? Don’t be that reviewer. Instead, be the reviewer whose comments are accurate and precise. Editors and authors alike will appreciate your efforts!
- Take good notes and save them until a final decision on the manuscript has been provided.
To help you make those accurate and precise comments that will get you to the top of your reviewing game, take concise but thorough notes in line with the text that you can then use to write a point-by-point review. I suggest coding these notes with symbols that tell you where in the review to incorporate each piece of feedback. Your specific system will vary depending on the precise structure you prefer for your reviews, but most editors will suggest that you offer some distinction between major issues with the manuscript and minor points for improvement.
- Consider that something being new or different doesn’t automatically make it wrong.
To be clear, major issues are things like conclusions that aren’t supported by the data, unclear relationships between the literature cited in the “front matter” and the content of the later sections, or weaknesses in the research methods that fundamentally call the findings into question. Some things that are *not* major issues include: need for English-language editing services, typographical or grammatical errors, unconventional choices of pronouns or identity labels, etc. Reviews often become a hotbed for microaggressions towards people who differ from ourselves in one or more ways. It’s much easier to keep the focus on the content when you take careful, detailed notes about why you think something is an issue and what you’d suggest the authors do about it. In cases where there really is a serious issue with the research, it’s also much easier to back up your concerns when you have a detailed record of your thinking.
- When you feel tempted to pass judgment on something, ask a question instead.
In my experience as a reviewer, for every paper with such severe flaws as to suggest problematic motives on the part of the authors, there have been numerous others with shortcomings owing more to clarity of expression or thoroughness of explanation than to conflicts of interest. When reviewing a paper that raises “red flags” in your mind, think about how you would want a fellow scholar to respond if they had similar concerns about your own work. Would you want them to eviscerate you on the spot for the possibility of your work not being honest, or would you want them to ask thoughtful questions and encourage you to share the facts before passing judgment? Give your authors enough rope to hang themselves. In most cases, you’ll find that said rope quickly becomes a lifeline that can rescue a sinking argument. And if you still have questions after the final version of a paper appears in print, why not write a thoughtful letter to the editor in response, and net yourself an additional publication while promoting constructive scholarly dialogue?
- If you make a suggestion, substantiate it with specific strategies and helpful resources.
I don’t know about all of you, but I love those reviews where someone suggests a change and then offers a citation or two to help me make it. That’s a great way to get yourself noticed as a constructive reviewer, and to make a great impact on the final published research. Humans are remarkably like other creatures in that if we can see a path of least resistance, we are likely to take it and do so gladly. Offer your authors a clear path to greatness and encourage them to follow it! To frame your comments, think about the most helpful and encouraging feedback you received from your mentors in school, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, and try to emulate that. Point out the precise reasons for which a specific item needs improvement, articulate a concrete strategy for making those improvements, and affirm that the end product will be stronger for the authors’ efforts in implementing your feedback.
- Know that being a great reviewer means both speaking thoughtfully and listening attentively.
As reviewers and as writers, we are stronger together than we are individually, especially when we take the time to look out for one another as we do for ourselves. This means not only sharing our own ideas, but also taking the time to consider the insights and perspectives of others whose experiences and contexts may differ substantially from our own. So I’ll put my money where my writing is and turn the floor over to our readers. What tips do all of you have for writing spectacular peer reviews? What lessons have you learned during your time as a peer reviewer that you’d like to pass along to others?
We encourage all of you to share your experiences in the comments—let’s make this one of those supposedly rare Internet postings where it actually *is* a good idea to read the comments—and spread that wisdom around to your colleagues. Writing Where It Hurts about your experiences with peer review makes it easier for all of us to review where it helps!