‘I wish more ed­i­tors would delete un­help­fully nega­tive com­ments’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - SPORT - Caro­line Blyth is a se­nior lec­turer in the­o­log­i­cal and re­li­gious stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Auck­land.

The aca­demic peer re­view process is both a bless­ing and a curse. As a jour­nal edi­tor, I rely on col­leagues’ will­ing­ness to re­view sub­mis­sions, recog­nise promis­ing ar­ti­cles and rec­om­mend im­prove­ments when re­quired. Peer re­view­ing can be a gen­er­ous act of shar­ing our wis­dom and ex­pe­ri­ence – typ­i­cally with­out re­mu­ner­a­tion – with fel­low schol­ars whom we may not even know. It in­volves more than sim­ply stat­ing whether or not a piece of work is good enough for pub­li­ca­tion; it also al­lows us to val­i­date au­thors’ schol­arly ef­forts and of­fer them con­struc­tive feed­back, thus sus­tain­ing and en­rich­ing our own re­search field. If done well, it can foster col­le­gial­ity, en­cour­ag­ing fel­low aca­demics and stu­dents to pro­duce and pub­lish their best work.

What makes a good peer re­view? Some of the best I have re­ceived (as both an au­thor and jour­nal edi­tor) have been hon­est yet kind in their feed­back, lay­ing out the man­u­script’s strengths and weak­nesses in gen­er­ous de­tail. They have also been con­struc­tive in their crit­i­cism, of­fer­ing sug­ges­tions for how to make the ar­gu­ment stronger: what ad­di­tional sources could be use­ful and which el­e­ments of the dis­cus­sion should be high­lighted. More than any­thing, good peer re­views en­cour­age the au­thor to keep work­ing on their ar­ti­cle, to make it as good as it can be, and to see it as a piece of work with real aca­demic value and merit.

Yet be­ing a peer re­viewer rarely reaps any pro­fes­sional re­wards, as in­sti­tu­tions sel­dom recog­nise it as a mea­sure of schol­arly es­teem, or as mak­ing a wor­thy con­tri­bu­tion to the re­search en­vi­ron­ment. This is so ironic given the mas­sive pres­sure put on aca­demics to en­sure that their own pub­li­ca­tions are prop­erly peer re­viewed.

More­over, peer re­view is a sys­tem that is open to abuse. The thrill of anonymity al­lows some re­view­ers to vent their frus­tra­tions and pet peeves on fel­low aca­demics’ work. I have re­ceived my own share of re­views that left a dent in my con­fi­dence as a writer and re­searcher. Most frus­trat­ing were those that fo­cused less on the strengths of my ar­gu­ment or the qual­ity of my writ­ing than on whether or not the re­viewer shared my ide­o­log­i­cal stance. One par­tic­u­larly crush­ing re­viewer from a few years ago rec­om­mended my ar­ti­cle be re­jected be­cause they dis­agreed with my sup­port for LGBT equal­ity. Thank­fully, the jour­nal edi­tor ig­nored their rec­om­men­da­tion and of­fered to pub­lish my ar­ti­cle.

I have also spo­ken with more than one dis­en­chanted grad­u­ate stu­dent whose ex­pe­ri­ences of re­ceiv­ing nega­tive re­views left them ques­tion­ing their abil­i­ties as re­searchers, and even their right to a place in the academy. A few months ago, a doc­toral stu­dent told me about the re­views she had re­ceived from a highly es­teemed jour­nal in her field. One of the re­view­ers had sug­gested that her ar­gu­ment was “pre­pos­ter­ous” and lack­ing in any aca­demic merit. “Why are aca­demics so un­kind to each other?” she asked me. I had no an­swer. But I have got­ten into the habit of care­fully check­ing re­views sent to me as a jour­nal edi­tor be­fore I pass them on to the au­thor, delet­ing un­help­fully nega­tive com­ments or rephras­ing them into more con­struc­tive feed­back. I wish more jour­nal ed­i­tors would do the same.

Peer re­view­ing in the hu­man­i­ties is typ­i­cally dou­ble-blind, but a col­league re­cently sug­gested to me that while au­thors should re­main anony­mous, they should be al­lowed to know the iden­tity of their re­view­ers. Would that make for bet­ter and more con­struc­tive peer re­views? If your rep­u­ta­tion as a learned aca­demic and a de­cent hu­man be­ing is on the line, might you be less tempted to of­fer a snarky or un­help­ful re­sponse? Or might such a move make aca­demics even less will­ing to per­form this vi­tal task, for fear that nega­tive re­views could come back to bite them?

Per­haps we could start by mak­ing open peer re­views an op­tion for re­view­ers. That way, au­thors could prop­erly ac­knowl­edge the as­sis­tance they get from their re­view­ers. And re­view­ers, in turn, might learn some im­por­tant les­sons about col­le­gial­ity and kind­ness – virtues that are all too rare in academia but that we aca­demics should value beyond ru­bies.

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