Professionally judgemental

“Do you think it’s any good?”

If this kind of question gets you excited, you may well have an assessor’s enthusiasm that will endear you to academic journals, granting bodies, and publishers the world over.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I was a journal editor for about five years. It’s a role that has numerous highs and lows.

Highs? Pulling together a really tight, quality issue. Expanding circulation and frequency. The lavish 3-course lunch put on by juggernaut publisher annually.

Lows? Reading reams of bad papers. Fitting the editing work around an already-packed schedule. Dealing with unprofessional, always-late, or just plain nasty reviewers. It’s the latter aspect that I’ll focus on for this post.

The process of reviewing well for journals is a complex skill. Because of my own disciplinary background, I’m speaking mostly about humanities publications, but much of what I say applies across many fields.

First, what exactly am I talking about?

Most reputable journals in academia have a reviewing system in place. The system I’ve had most experience with is outlined below:

  • You submit an essay to a journal.
  • The editorial team decides whether or not your article fits with the scope and aims of their journal. If so, they’ll send your article out to review (usually two experts in your field); if not, they’ll probably write you a note stating that the article isn’t suitable, and perhaps suggest other avenues for you to try (well, we did this because we thought it was courteous).
  • The reviewing process I’m most familiar with is the ‘double-blind peer review.’ This means that the article is stripped of identifying features so the reviewers don’t know who you are, and you don’t get to know who the reviewers are either. It’s meant to equalise the reviewing dynamic and places more pressure on the article to stand alone rather than have reviewers inadvertently swayed by an author’s reputation (for better or worse).
  • When the reviews are returned, the journal editors make a decision about what recommendation to make to the author. If one reviewer chooses to Reject, while another recommends publication without revision, it’s up to the editors to call it.
  • If accepted, subject to revision, the author then makes the recommended changes or at least addresses the criticism in a satisfactory way. Note that just because you tweak a few phrases or throw in a suggested reference or two, this doesn’t make your article any more acceptable for publication. Revise in good conscience, with scholarly integrity intact, and you won’t waste your own or anyone else’s time. There’s more on this in my earlier post about Building your journal karma.
  • If your revised piece (and almost every single article that is submitted needs revision of some sort) is finally accepted, the editors should let you know approximately when the piece will appear. If you’re with a high profile, significant journal, time-lines can spin out a long way. That is, your accepted revised article may not appear for another six months to a year. Them’s the breaks.

OK, that’s the gist of what the review process entails.

The rest of this entry is focused on how to write a good review for articles (and much of this is applicable to book manuscripts as well).

For me, this is how you review articles well and make journal or book editors happy:

  1. Meet deadlines. I know I put this in with every entry. It’s because it’s IMPORTANT. You said you’d review it within a certain time-frame. Barring unexpected hold-ups/illness/accidents, you should get that referee’s report in to the editor(s). Being very late doesn’t only make you look bad and disorganised, it also means the editors end up carrying the bag when the author goes off in a snit about the process taking too long and takes their work elsewhere, or they get narky about the delays but stay put (and are awful to deal with in general thereafter).
  2. Be clear and specific about recommended revisions. There’s nothing worse than wishy-washy (or rushed) referees’ reports where the editor has to guesstimate what you meant by, say, “some passages need glossing” – which passages? How? A footnote? There’s no need to be a total pedant (though sometimes this is the best place to exercise those pedantic skills in terms of attention to detail and flow of argument – being a pedant for the sake of it, however, is probably still unwelcome…), but the more guided and particular the commentary, the easier it is for the author to revise to your standards.
  3. Be kind, detailed, and as constructive as you can be if you reject an article/essay. Sometimes you won’t feel like it because reading something awful is time you’ll never get back. This is where you apply the “walking in someone else’s shoes” technique – if your work was being rejected by a journal or book editor, how would you want to find out about it? There’s nothing to be gained by being unkind or gratuitous in the criticism. You’re rejecting the piece – that’s already a strong message. Don’t get personal or make presumptions about the author. Stick with the style/content/depth of the piece and state why it doesn’t come up to scratch.
  4. Be discreet with your comments on the essay. Most review sheets have a section for more detailed commentary; keep in mind that this is usually cut’n pasted to the author to aid in their revision (or to justify a rejection). Don’t put anything in that section that you don’t want the author to receive (most editors should skim the comments to make sure nothing too scandalous gets passed on, but you never know). If you need to make comments to the editors directly, do that in a separate email, or in another section of the review sheet. For example, I’ve flagged comments in a separate section that were specifically NOT intended for the author because I’d found some preliminary evidence of loose referencing (aka possible plagiarism) that the editors might have liked to double-check before they made a final decision.

Rest assured that journal editors can tell a lot about an academic from the way they approach, and deal with, the review process.

Reviewing articles for journals is an academic duty that brings little tangible reward. However, those who review well and regularly are often also those who are good colleagues and academics. I view it as a community service, one that is necessary and fosters reciprocal relations. It’s a professional good.


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