Friday, 4 November 2016

Peer Review: How-To

From time to time, I am asked to blind peer review an article in one of my fields of research for possible publication. (For non-academics, this doesn't mean reading with a blindfold on; the idea is that both the author of the article and the reviewer remain unaware of each other's identities, with the journal editor acting as intermediary between them; the confidentiality system generally works, at least until the day I wake up with an ankylosaur's head at the end of my bed). Peer review is required for journal articles, conference paper proposals, and of course book manuscripts: it's an unpaid responsibility that comes periodically to all academics, rather like jury duty but in the comfort of your own home (and you're unlikely to spend the weekend arguing the finer points of MLA with Henry Fonda). There is a lot to be learned from reviewing, even in one's own area of so-called expertise: each new article for review opens up the latest developments in the field, sharing new insights or research. In addition, the review process enforces scrupulous, critical reading, with frequent fact-checking - refresher training for short-cut-addicted academics. We could, of course, in the time-honoured tradition of book reviewers, simply skip the 'reading' bit entirely and make up our report based on equally reasonable criteria such as font size, or average paragraph length on p. 23  - but then we would forego the faintly vertiginous thrill of opening a new document and discovering whether some unknown colleague has cited, praised, ignored, built upon, or incisively demolished our own work.

I haven't written so very many reviews, but I've been reviewed many times. Good reviewers, who have made my work stronger with acute fault-spotting and positive feedback, have enriched both my career and my faith in human nature. As for the bad reviewers, let's just say they won't be getting any free rides on my onion. (No, I didn't find it helpful when you used the journal's score chart to rate my article zero out of ten because I hadn't read one thing which you considered crucial - you just forced the apologetic editor to reject me without the option of revision, even though the second reviewer rated me eight out of ten. And as for the person who claimed that I write in a macaronic mixture of Russian and English - well, I wish my Russian were that good. Bitter, me? You must have the wrong dinosaur).

The biggest challenge of review-writing is compartmentalization. You must not be emotional (or territorial). You must write one report for the writer (which should be encouraging, even if your verdict is negative), and often another for the editor's eyes only (which can be less tactful). You must pass on your expertise, but without betraying your identity. You do need to state concisely whether the article is good enough for publication, or good enough for publication with minor revisions, or only after major revisions, or whether it and its containing folders should preferably be incinerated in a controlled explosion in New Mexico. Some reviewers have no compunction about more or less colourfully choosing the latter options. Others, like me, more prone to bet-hedging and bush-beating, may resort to euphemistic language of the ilk of  'Little Tommy is lively and opinionated'. You don't actually need to reassure the editor that you know 2.5 times as much about everything in the manuscript as the author does, but you may feel a compulsion to write as if you do. Clearly we need a common language for all peer reviewers, which editors can easily translate for hapless writers, so that nobody ever needs to say what they mean. And here are some highlights from my phrasebook, derived from all the reviews I have ever received, plus absolutely none that I have written:

  • This is an excellent article. (Well yes, now and then I do read an excellent article, and it makes my world a better place).
  • This article is lucidly written and clearly structured. (I'm softening the editor up before I write something really damning).
  • The page reference in note 15 to Robin Feuer Miller's book is incorrect. (I'm not really sure what to say about this article, so I'm going after the footnotes).
  • I'm not certain the writer has really grasped Wittgenstein's point here. (I don't either, but analytic philosophy is a soft target).
  • *Cites a sentence* What does this mean? (The writer can't write).
  • The writer has misunderstood Tolstoy's argument. (The "writer" can't read).
  • The writer has omitted to mention key critical authorities in this field. (They didn't read my book).
  • The article would benefit from integrating key critical commentary into the overall argument. (You think you can get away with MENTIONING MY BOOK ONCE IN A FOOTNOTE? Think again, cupcake).
  • The article shows exceptional insight into this neglected area. (Thank God I wrote my book before they did).
  • Analysis of this neglected figure is overdue and welcome. (That's my future research topic, by the way, but I'm OK with you doing the spadework).
  • This article shows exceptional insight, but could benefit from further analysis of X's chapter on Pilnyak. (Nice try, but I'm going to make you read my book again. Because I can).

Peer review, for all that I jest, is built on trust. As a reviewer, you don't just have the opportunity to advance or to cryofreeze someone's career; you are more than a mere expert in your field; you become a model of academic fellowship. You can genuinely bring out the best in someone's professional practice, and by investing your time and effort, you show just how far-reaching professionalism can be. But first of all, remember Google (and not just for checking footnote 49): don't be evil. 

Disclaimer: No actual review articles were harmed in the making of this blog post.


  1. No, I didn't find it helpful when you used the journal's score chart to rate my article zero out of ten because I hadn't read one thing which you considered crucial - you just forced the apologetic editor to reject me without the option of revision, even though the second reviewer rated me eight out of ten.

    Grr... What awful people there are in this world!

  2. Thanks for the sympathy, Languagehat! I should mention that the article thus cruelly condemned was about the influence of Poe on a Russian writer we'll call H (since that isn't either of his initials). I was cocky at the time because I'd read all of H's novels, most - note "most" of his short stories, and all the Anglophone criticism that existed on him (as well as a lot by and about Poe). Unfortunately, among the stories I hadn't yet read by H, there was a brief fantasy actually featuring Poe as its hero. Big, entirely accidental omission. It was a very sloppy mistake - but a genuine one. You could argue that the reviewer overreacted, but you could also say that I was fatally misguided to submit an article with such shoddy research behind it.