‘Be a true “peer”, who is help­ful but firm’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - SPORT - Rachel A. Ankeny is pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Univer­sity of Ade­laide, where she is also as­so­ciate dean of re­search and deputy ex­ec­u­tive dean in the Fac­ulty of Arts.

We all know the usual rea­son­ing: we peer re­view to be good ci­ti­zens, to sup­port di­a­logue in our fields, and so on. We want high-qual­ity peer re­views our­selves, so we need to pro­vide them for oth­ers. But in the rapidly chang­ing cli­mate sur­round­ing re­search pub­li­ca­tion, new ques­tions are aris­ing: why pro­vide this free labour, par­tic­u­larly for com­mer­cially run en­ti­ties? Given that re­view­ing typ­i­cally doesn’t “count” for any­thing within our in­sti­tu­tions, should we cut back on our com­mit­ments? And which re­quests should we ac­cept?

As the edi­tor-in-chief for a ma­jor jour­nal in my field, I de­pend ut­terly on ex­cel­lent ref­er­ees. From this point of view, what makes a good ref­eree is very clear: timely re­sponse to the orig­i­nal in­vi­ta­tion, con­tin­ued con­tact as the re­view­ing pro­gresses (es­pe­cially if any prob­lems arise) and a de­tailed re­port that pro­vides truly con­struc­tive crit­i­cism. The last is per­haps the trick­i­est point.

Con­struc­tive crit­i­cism aims to make the pro­posed pa­per stronger and more com­pelling, not to try to get the au­thors to write a dif­fer­ent pa­per al­to­gether. Proof­read­ing is not the point of ref­er­ee­ing: this should be left to au­thors, ed­i­tors and pro­duc­tion staff. But it is es­sen­tial to as­sess whether the man­u­script is par­tic­i­pat­ing in on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tions in the field: an ex­tremely high-qual­ity ar­ti­cle that is read by no one is not a ben­e­fit to any­one, in­clud­ing the au­thors.

Pa­pers should also be re­viewed to make cer­tain that they are ad­e­quately and ac­cu­rately cit­ing pre­vi­ous rel­e­vant lit­er­a­ture, par­tic­u­larly by un­der­rep­re­sented groups, such as women; em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence shows that their pub­li­ca­tions tend to be ne­glected. In many senses, there is noth­ing truly orig­i­nal left to be writ­ten. The best pa­pers po­si­tion their claims and ar­gu­ments against the ex­ist­ing lit­er­a­ture and en­ter a di­a­logue with it. This should be a cen­tral con­sid­er­a­tion for ref­er­ees, who should point the au­thors specif­i­cally to­wards the lit­er­a­ture – by, for in­stance, pro­vid­ing ex­am­ples of rel­e­vant ci­ta­tions.

Re­view­ing well en­tails not ac­cept­ing too many re­quests. Aca­demics use dif­fer­ent strate­gies, such as only do­ing a cer­tain num­ber per year, or only ac­cept­ing a new re­quest after they have com­pleted the last. It is also es­sen­tial to be in the right frame of mind when you sit down to re­view; if done at the last minute, at the end of a long day, what you pro­duce is likely to be un­help­ful.

How you present your re­view is vi­tal: a re­port that is ex­tremely blunt or ag­gres­sive to the point of rude­ness will prob­a­bly not be deemed us­able by many ed­i­tors, so pro­duc­ing such a re­port wastes your time and theirs. Avoid be­ing (the per­haps apoc­ryphal) re­viewer #2 and in­stead be a true “peer”, who is help­ful but firm. Con­sider how you would feel if you were to re­ceive the re­port that you have writ­ten and strive to be ac­cu­rate with­out be­ing down­right mean. Pro­vide the au­thors with a way for­ward with­out do­ing the work for them: this might mean try­ing a dif­fer­ent jour­nal, recon­cep­tu­al­is­ing the pa­per’s fram­ing, or sim­ply mak­ing some mi­nor clar­i­fi­ca­tions.

Part of your job as a ref­eree is to give ev­i­dence-based ad­vice to the edi­tor about how to pro­ceed, as in most cases ref­er­ees’ re­ports are ad­vi­sory. Do con­sider whether your judge­ment in this re­gard may be com­pro­mised by a con­flict of in­ter­est, and if in doubt, con­sult the edi­tor be­fore pro­ceed­ing. While re­view­ing pa­pers by au­thors well known to you is gen­er­ally frowned upon, it may be im­por­tant to do so in smaller sub­fields if you are one of the few peo­ple with the rel­e­vant ex­per­tise and you be­lieve that you can re­main im­par­tial.

In­deed, aca­demics should fo­cus their re­view­ing ef­forts on pa­pers in their own sub­fields, where their ex­per­tise is strong­est and where they ben­e­fit most from the win­dow it gives on to emerg­ing is­sues. Try not to ac­cept re­view re­quests that are lat­eral to your ex­per­tise un­less there are clearly ex­ten­u­at­ing cir­cum­stances.

Re­view­ing also al­lows you to see mod­els of best prac­tice – and of poor prac­tice – which can im­prove your own pub­li­ca­tion habits. To be forced to cri­tique some­one else’s work en­ables you to be­come more re­flec­tive about your own re­search, par­tic­u­larly in terms of fram­ing, ar­gu­men­ta­tion and ev­i­dence.

Re­view­ing should be re­garded not as a chance to lec­ture oth­ers but as an op­por­tu­nity to learn, and to use your ex­per­tise to con­trib­ute to the growth of your field. Viewed in this way, it also is a much more pleas­ant and pro­duc­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for every­one in­volved.

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