Lessons Learned: The Peer Review Process

by Tasha Maddison
Saskatchewan Polytechnic
Maha Kumaran
Leslie and Irene Dubé Health Sciences Library, University of Saskatchewan

We are currently in the final stages of editing a book on distributed learning. We initially received 27 chapter submissions on October 31, 2015 and set up a peer review process shortly thereafter. Each chapter was reviewed by two external reviewers. Our first challenge was to find enough reviewers so that each chapter could be reviewed in a timely manner. We sought reviewers from our immediate network of colleagues and later from acquaintances and individuals that we met at conferences. Finally we had to extend our search and seek out individuals out for that purpose. Once the first few chapters were finalized, we requested assistance from those chapter authors with reviewing chapters, and if they were not available, asked if could they recommended others from their institutions. Reviewers were invited to comment directly on the document and/or provide comments using a template that we provided. It was a learning process for everyone involved; the authors, the reviewers and also the editors. Here is what we have learned thus far in this process:

Reviewers don’t always agree. In cases like these, it is very helpful to have a third opinion and this is where the editors play a critical role. They can ask the following questions and make a decision on the chapter: Does the review seem overly critical, or unjust? Is the reviewer actually providing suggestions help to improve the chapter? Or are they unnecessarily picky? Should the author(s) be given a chance to review and significantly revise their work, or is it feasible to reject it outright?

Lesson Learned: Use your judgement in accepting or intermediating the reviewer’s comments

Reviewers are too nice. There were occasions when reviewers did not make any comments on the document, and/or had only positive comments on the template. Upon reading the same documents, editors had questions or needed clarification.

Lesson Learned: The reviewer’s comments are not the only quintessential element to use towards bettering a chapter.

Reviewers and deadlines. Deadlines don’t mean the same thing to everyone. Some reviewers demonstrate tremendous discipline and always submit their work on time. Others, use deadlines more as a guideline than a hard and fast rule. Editors should count on these potential delays and build in a significant contingency plan for time.

Lesson Learned: Be prepared to be flexible and give reviewers 3 weeks to return their evaluation, but expect at least two weeks lag time for some. Also, build in a time contingency for the entire project.

Reviewers as copyeditors: Reviewers are tempted to take on the role of copyediting when reviewing a text, but the primary job here is to review the content and comment appropriately. The more detailed a reviewers’ suggestions can be, the more helpful it is to the authors, and ultimately, the more successful the final chapter will be. General sweeping statements are not useful. Specific detailed comments are more helpful. If you are a peer reviewer, think of yourself as a most valued intermediary in the process of publishing a chapter. You take the work, and help to elevate it to the next level.

Lesson Learned: Provide reviewers with a template posing specific questions to present their comments and an area where they can include general comments for the editors, which will not be shared with authors.

Rejections after reviewing: Unfortunately rejections are part of the peer review process. It is important that all parties are gracious and respectful if this is the outcome. The reviewers and editors should provide suggestions that strengthen the chapter and have it fit for publication upon revision. The authors should be left feeling that their submission and their participation in the process was worthwhile, and hopefully they too learned a lot.

Lesson Learned: Be prepared to listen to authors’ justifications about their chapter and then make final decisions.

The peer review process, regardless of the fate of the document, should noticeably improve the quality of the final product. Unbiased feedback from experts notes the successes or shortcomings of each chapter’s argument, the validity of results, the flow of the discussion, and the sound foundation of research. All members involved will benefit if they come in with a positive attitude and with a generosity towards accepting criticism.

For more information on the peer review process, check out these recent Brain Work Blog posts:

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.