Stairway at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
academia, academic writing, dissemination, Higher Education, peer review, publishing

Tackling the peer review system

New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination.

Episode 3 (dissemination): Tackling the peer review system

A few years ago, the renowned scholar Mieke Bal made a provocative call to abolish the peer review system. Don’t hold your breath: it’s not likely to happen. As pressure to produce 4* publications increases, the peer review system will continue to be adopted widely.

This is why it is essential that you take the time to prepare yourself, and your manuscript, for publication, regardless of the fact that the peer review system is problematic, or perhaps precisely because it is!

In this blog post I want to offer a short, practical guide on submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals, based on both my experience as a published author and as a journal editor.

Lesson 1: Know your reviewer

Nowadays most academic journals draw on the expertise of peer reviewers in their selection of manuscripts deemed worthy of publication. They will assess the quality of your article, as well as its suitability for publication in the selected journal. Their feedback will eventually form the basis of the editor’s decision.

So how to get off to a good start?

  1. Get some background information about the journal, especially its editorial board: peer reviewers are often selected from there.
  2. Always check that you’ve correctly referenced other scholars’ works before you hit the ‘send’ button; they might end up reviewing your article, and people won’t appreciate seeing their name misspelt or their works cited wrongly (I once reviewed a paper where the author incorrectly referenced my work, from which I gathered they had probably never read it – I was not happy).
  3. Some journals let you suggest peer reviewers. Given the difficulty to find reviewers nowadays, journal editors will appreciate you providing them with a list of potential. DON’T name colleagues or supervisors, though, as this may compromise your anonymity (in case of double-blind peer review procedure, i.e., author and reviewer identity remains hidden throughout the peer review process).

Lesson 2: Patience is the magic word

The peer review can take a really long time, so don’t expect quick answers or decisions. Here are a few factors that determine the length of the process:

  • Peer reviewers are generally unpaid, and the number of people willing to cut out time and energy to review a paper has – understandingly – diminished over the years. So it may take some time for a journal simply to find a sufficient number of reviewers.
  • When the reports contradict each other (for example, you get an “accept” and a “reject” recommendation), editors will have to find a third or even fourth reviewer in order to get a clearer picture. This will obviously prolong the process.
  • Your article may also go through multiple review “rounds”. In fact, it is not uncommon for journals to send a revised paper back to one or more – original or new – reviewers, who will check to see if and how you’ve addressed their feedback.

If the process is delayed for any of these reasons, there’s not much you can do, except one thing: when resubmitting a manuscript, always provide a detailed list of changes you’ve made. This will save both editors and peer reviewers time when reassessing the quality of your manuscript in further rounds.

It’s also fine to contact the editor to ask for an update, but please don’t harass them!

Lesson 3: Dealing with negative criticism

Peer review reports can be painful and even devastating, and Professor Bal is right to point out the problem of “grudge-bearing scholars” destroying articles just to get back at someone, although I wonder how common this really is.

In my experience reports are generally quite helpful, also because most journals will gather multiple reports, so even if you get one very short piece of feedback, the other reviewers will usually make up for this lack.

Still, if you get negative criticism, don’t take it to heart. Put aside your pride and try to learn from it. This doesn’t mean that you have to accept anything the reviewer says; if you can motivate your choices or defend your position, you don’t necessarily have to apply the suggested changes. 

Do, however, carefully read and reflect upon the comments, and most of all, never dismiss the reviewer’s opinion. It won’t get you anywhere and you will not make a good impression on the journal editors.

Last but not least: show gratitude, even if you’re boiling with rage! Peer reviewers take out valuable time to read your work, usually with tight deadlines, and most of the time they will help you improve it, so acknowledge that.

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For more advice, tips and encouragement, check out these online resources:

Dear anonymous peer-reviewer, your criticism made me a better researcher (Guardian, Academics Anonymous)

I’m writing a journal article – what literatures do I choose? (by Pat Thomson)

15 stepts to revising journal articles (LSE blog)

Stairway at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
Stairway at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)

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Previous post about dissemination:

What’s the point of Powerpoint?

academia, conferences, dissemination, Higher Education

What’s the point of Powerpoint? (episode 3 of the Fabulous Four)

Third in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order).

Episode 3 (dissemination)

What’s the point of Powerpoint?

As the academic year draws to an end, conference-goers get on their way. Powerpoint (PPT) has, by now, become an almost indispensable visual aid at conferences and in the classroom, certainly in the UK. It is gaining ever more momentum, even if some are highly critical of it. But, as one person commented in a recent Twitter debate on the topic, “PPT snobbery is just bullshit for people who like to pretend they’re doing a Ted Talk.”

PPT is particularly frowned upon in Italy, I have found, perhaps because of a certain defiance of technological forms of communication? Or maybe the rhetorical tradition – in its original, oral form – is more rooted in the Italian academic context? That said, not all Italians master the art of rhetorical speaking. I vividly recall a conference of the Society for Italian Studies, where an Italian bloke totally missed the mark in terms of presenting. I don’t recall the topic of his talk (which shows just how terrible his presentation skills were), but I do remember how tedious, almost tormenting, it was to sit through his presentation. Yes, “sitting through” is the right description, and I’m not just talking about the audience! In fact, the speaker basically sat behind a table, sliding down the chair as if he was watching telly on a lazy Friday night, his shoulders pending to one side as the relative arm rested on the table edge, his hand barely holding up the paper while the other hand hided in his pocket. He read the whole paper without bothering to look into the room, obviously going way too fast. I can’t recall how good his English was, but if you add bad pronunciation to it, well, you have a worst case scenario.

Apart from being truly indispensable in certain disciplines, such as art history or film studies, PPT can be a really good visual aid, both for the not-so-confident/skilled public speaker and for the audience. Provided it is considered just that: an AID.

In fact, a lot of people make an excessive or bad use of PPT, which results in equally ineffective presentations. This includes established scholars. I once attended a keynote lecture where the speaker seemed to have copied and pasted his talk, or large part of it, into a PPT presentation: his slides were packed with text, text and still more text, one slide after another…impossible to read while also trying to listen.

So, if you’re guilty of the above or any other misuse of PPT (e.g., flashing colours, flickering lights), or if you’re one of those people who speeds through their slides as if they’re worried they’ll miss their flight, here’s five tips on how to deliver a decent, and effective, PPT presentation:

  1. Don’t stand in front of the slides, but on the side: if you’re right-handed stand left and vice versa.
  2. Don’t overcrowd. Forty words or so is enough for one slide.
  3. Don’t prepare too many slides: my advice is 10 to 12 slides for a 20-minute talk.
  4. Choose your background wisely: MS offers a lot of available PPT templates, but they’re not always appropriate. See if your university has its own PPT template – they always look smart! Also avoid dark backgrounds: dark writing on a light background works best.
  5. Limit, or indeed avoid, excessive clip art and animation features. If you do need to make multiple data appear within the same slide, at different moments, practice this in advance, marking the points in which the data is to appear.

By way of example, have a look at one of my own presentations, on 1968 and the Italian right (ASMI annual conference 2008): Hajek PPT 1968. Note how I’ve added sources when using images from Internet, well except for the iconic photo of the French “Marianne” (by Jean-Pierre Rey). It must have skipped my attention! Also, looking at it now, I would have added a reference – on the first slide – to the name of the association organising the conference, and a final slide containing email address and any social media.

To conclude, only use PPT if it has sense or if you think it will help you. But it’s not a must. Different things work for different people: some are great public speakers, others less. The point I want to make is that PPT can contribute to inclusivity by giving inexperienced or nervous speakers confidence, or simply a visual aid to help them deliver a clear and structured presentation. That also goes for the audience, especially people those who aren’t English native speakers, as it helps them follow the narrative and catch up in case they might miss a word.

In sum, if done correctly Powerpoint is really helpful, and audiences will thank you. I certainly would.

Note: other than building on my own conference experience, for some of the tips described above I have drawn inspiration from the “Presenting to an Academic Audience” course led by Dr Steve Hutchinson, from Hutchinson Training & Development Ltd.