When peer review goes well – and when it doesn’t

Photo by eatsmilesleep | www.flickr.com/photos/45378259@N05 (Shared via CC license 2.0 - creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
Photo by eatsmilesleep | http://www.flickr.com/photos/45378259@N05 (Shared via CC license 2.0 – creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

In the academic world, getting published is serious business, it can mean the difference between getting a job, and not even getting an interview.

For new PhD graduates, this need is particularly strong, with the catchphrase “publish or perish” whispered in hushed tones, as people unpack why one colleague seems able to carve out a professional path, with greater permanency than multiple sessional (and very part-time) roles across several institutions!

There is also an arguably ethical component to this expectation to publish and share one’s work. Those who’ve undertaken a doctorate have had heavy investments (in the form of time, mentorship, and financial support) from their respective academic institutions, supervisors, research participants, associated communities, and schools of study. Giving back in some way is only right.

I recently completed my PhD and, in keeping with publishing expectations, I have worked consistently to translate my thesis into scholarly, peer-reviewed articles over the last five months (among other work and family commitments). The results of this process for me so far are eight pieces at various stages of the publication process:  two in press, two in the review cycle, and four are in preparation.

Reflecting on my experiences thus far, I have been amazed by the diversity of ways that a prospective author can be treated by journals and their editors, how differently the peer-review process can occur, and what is considered as constituting academic substance.

For example, my first piece was dismissed out of hand by the editor of a prestigious Australian journal as insufficiently “rigorous” and representing only a “very small” sample. You may have guessed already that I’m a qualitative researcher. In keeping with the established protocols of my field, I had interviewed ten people. The value of an in-depth exploration of outliers to understanding the complexity of experience, creating new theory, and ensuring faulty assumptions are not applied to the diversity of experience (particularly the non-mainstream) is a debate I will leave for a future blog. However, what was curious is that the piece was then accepted for publication in its unadulterated form by a competing publication and, most recently, a variant that I had rewritten so that it targeted the Western (as opposed to only Australian) world has been accepted for publication by an international journal of relatively high standing.

At each submission point, the content and main ideas of the articles were subject to the peer review process, but – omg! – my emotional response to each was completely different.

In the first instance, feedback was fairly scathing (not an unusual experience if you are a qualitative researcher being reviewed by a certain type of quantitative reviewer).  However, I had deliberately selected this journal as it published both qualitative and quantitative research. As my research questioned the paradigms presented as ‘truths’ by that journal, I felt my research formed an evidence-base from which an interesting and (from my perspective) important academic discussion could begin.  This was not to be the case!

I was left reeling, filled with self-doubt, and wondering whether I had completely erred in my choice of profession and PhD research content. As a qualitative researcher, I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of heavy-handed critique before, so it was mostly a case of suck it up and move on. My second review experience for that paper was cause for celebration – I’m getting published!  The third experience (the Western world variant) was totally wonderful, and I recently learned that it will also be published.

All of us, whether we’re emerging or established researchers, experience trepidation when opening a journal review email. Despite that one  extreme reviewer, my experiences with the peer review process overall has been empowering and contributed to my thinking about my research topic.

In fact, one of my later reviewers captured (in a two-word phrase) a concept that I had been grappling to articulate clearly for the entirety of my PhD. Interestingly, that reviewer also identified similar concerns with methodology that the first journal had used to dismiss my paper out of hand, but this reviewer gave a much more considered critique, while raising a couple of pointed questions. This opened up ways through which I could more clearly justify and clarify my stance, and ultimately have a revised version of that paper accepted for publication

What’s my take-home message from these early experiences with academic publishing?

When I grow up, I want to emulate those senior academics who seek to challenge research in a way that facilitates both academic and personal growth. They provide feedback that is honest, at times challenging, constructive, and enables the publication of better quality work. What is the point of critique that only shuts others’ thinking down?

In the end, who knows? Maybe that idea, this methodology, or those findings that have benefitted from peer-review guidance may be the beginnings of a voice that will change the world.

Dr Jodie Goldney is a qualitative researcher with extensive experience working in the community services sector.

Her PhD is a critique of the scientist-practitioner, or Boulder model of pedagogy that underpins the training of psychologists in most of the Western World. Drawing on that work, Jodie created the attributional approach to recruitment and training, which screens for reflexivity and capacity to learn from experience over a static knowledge-base.

Jodie recently launched Qualitate (www.qualitate.com.au; on Twitter: @Qualitate01), which applies qualitative methodologies to the problems of industry.

She is both adjunct and sessional academic with Charles Sturt University. Jodie tweets from @jgoldn01.


  1. Thanks Jodie for such a great blog. As a fellow qual researcher I fully appreciate and have experienced what you are describing. #perseverance. I sense the tide is turning towards true mixed methods and the value f good qual researchers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love 5-year-old daughters! My kids have helped me stay sane throughout the PhD process-and beyond too. Another friend of mine commented to me, that I could only complain after I’d had 30 rejections! 🙂 Good luck with it all-and I’m quite sure that your persistence will #payoffatstomepoint. Cheers! Jodie

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I am also in the process of publishing chapters of my thesis, and had very similar experience to yours. I felt the same way, when the journal that finally accepted one of my papers not only accepted with major revisions, but gave me 21 points to correct! It was so helpful, rather than rejecting with three reasons, or rejecting with five reasons that were not helpful or informative. We need to help new researchers learn how to organize their information even if we opt for rejecting their papers, in a way that will help them to grow, not stunt their optimistic, fresh, and possibly invaluable perspectives.

    Liked by 1 person

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