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.

***

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)

***

Previous post about dissemination:

What’s the point of Powerpoint?

academia, funding, peer review

Coping with rejection

Did you just get rejected for a funding application? Struggling to deal with it? You should know that you are not alone…

Try reading this very useful, and heartwarming, stream of Tweets about the difficulties, and the importance, of accepting that your project has been rejected. Hope you feel better!