Peer Reviewing as a Foundation of Research Culture (Or, how not to be that peer reviewer)

by Heidi LM Jacobs
Leddy Library, University of Windsor

When you talk to published scholars, everyone has a horror story to share about a bad peer reviewer. Stories can range from the amusing to the incredulous. Over the years, I’ve had some excellent peer reviewers: these are readers who take the time to read my work carefully, see what I’m trying to do, and then find ways to make my article better. My work is always better because of those reviewers and I am grateful for them. But I’ve also had reviewers who lean more toward hurtful or harmful rather than helpful. Here are some of the comments I’ve personally received in the past few years that would fall into that “less than helpful” category:
• “Maybe you could talk to a faculty member on your campus who could teach you how to do research.”
• “Writing down your own thoughts about teaching is not research. You can’t just make statements about what you think. You need to use surveys and data to make claims.”
• Entire review: “Uninteresting. Unpublishable. Reject.”
• “I know very little about this area and don’t work in the area writer is talking about. However, if the writer explored [an entirely different topic] it would be a much more interesting article.”
I should note that all of the responses above are from peer reviews of articles that went on to be published and well-received elsewhere; one even made a “best instruction article of the year” list. As someone who has been sending papers out for over twenty years, I’m able to shrug those awful reviews off, send my work out again, and move on. Increasingly, however, what bothers me most about getting these reviews is imagining what it would be like to be a brand new scholar sending her or his work out to reviewers and receiving feedback like the above. It takes courage and trust to send our work out and when we receive harmful or hurtful feedback, the will and courage to send it out again diminishes considerably.

Our goal as reviewers should be—above all—to be helpful: helpful to the writer by giving him or her concrete strategies to make their work better and helpful to the profession by encouraging, nurturing, and mentoring our peers to publish top-notch work.

By being “helpful,” I want to underscore that I do not mean that reviewers can only say positive things and avoid anything that points out limitations of the work. Not pointing out, for example, that the literature review needs work or that a paper lacks focus might seem “nicer” but is not helpful either to the writer if she or he wants to continue to publish certain kinds of articles or to the profession in whose best interests it is for us to produce strong, rigorous, well-crafted scholarship. That said, we need to be cognizant of the ways in which we give feedback and the impact of that feedback.

In recent months, I’ve talked to colleagues about what makes a good peer review. Here are a few things we have come up with:
• Respond to the article that the writer submitted and respond to the piece in front of you. Do not try to get authors to rewrite their article into what you would have written, explore a different topic, or use a different methodology.
• Remember you are responding to a person who was as nervous, anxious, and vulnerable as you were when you sent out your first article. Don’t hide behind anonymity and blind reviews. Never say anything in a blind review that you wouldn’t say if your name were known or you were talking to this author in person.
• Peer reviewing is not only about evaluating, it is also about mentoring, nurturing and building a community of strong scholars.
• Think about the peer review process as a teachable moment. Give writers concrete, specific feedback they can use to make their articles better. If the article lacks focus, say something like, “Your article could be better focused around a central argument. On page four, you write _____. This strikes me as a solid summary of your piece, perhaps you could organize the article around this central idea.” No one ever wants to be told they need to do more work but giving someone concrete suggestions on how to make improvements makes revisions seem much more do-able.
• Understand that, increasingly, library research uses diverse methods and approaches. It is true that quantitative and qualitative research methods have traditionally been the dominant mode of scholarship in our field but there is a place in our scholarly literature for all kinds of methods. Don’t reject a piece simply because of its theoretical or methodological approach. Our profession will be stronger if we embrace the diversity of methods and approaches.
• Use criteria that are both appropriate to the journal and to the method the author employs. If the author submitted a quantitative paper, by all means, examine their statistical methods and their findings. If the author submitted a theoretical piece, consider their ideas fully and the logic of their argument.
• A peer reviewer is not a copy editor. If you notice the article is full of awkward sentences and typos, it is not your job to go through and fully edit and proofread the piece. Rather, you should note to the author and to the journal editor that there are a significant number of typos and/or awkward sentences and that these must be addressed.
• Have and maintain high standards but find ways to help authors reach those high standards.
• Finally: generosity is key. Always find something good to say about a piece. Be generous with your expertise and your understanding of what makes an article great. Help others achieve excellence.

As librarians become more active in scholarship, more and more of us will be taking on roles as peer reviewers. In this development, we have an opportunity to build a strong, supportive network of reviewers who can help us build a stronger body of published scholarship and a strong research culture.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.