Since the beginning of January, I’ve had one article rejected, one accepted and one commissioned. But, I’ve also reviewed a book proposal and two articles for journals in my field. I’m working my way through a stack of exam marking and there’s a book with sad eyes that needs reviewing for a journal. It is safe to say, then, that in an academic career, you’d best get used to reading other people’s words and telling them what you think. You’ll spend your life on both sides of the equation: dishing out and being given verdicts on writing. What follows are some thoughts on this process, and how to keep a little bit of yourself while being judge and jury (Baloney!).
– Remember that you weren’t the finished article. Yes, even you were Bambi once, wobbling and tottering on your academic legs, accidentally misgendering critics and delivering half baked arguments (just me, then?). Unless every paper you’ve given was #flawless, then maybe you had the benefit of colleagues and reviewers to hone and review your writing style, structure and content. To that end: think about the feedback you’ve received that was the most helpful and work towards that. Remember on the other end of the exam, or book review, or article consideration, there is a person on the other end. Maybe that journal’s not for them, maybe their work isn’t exciting and new. It’s not an excuse to rip into them, especially if you’re venting about broader problems in the field. Pointing out methodological, structural or ideological problems is fine: an ego-soaked performance that’s really about you is not.
– For articles: if it’s truly awful you can leave another note for the editors with your feedback. Mark this clearly as not for the author’s eyes. Bear in mind that a lot of editors will forward on your verdict verbatim so it’s always a good idea to communicate anything you don’t want the author to see (i.e. if you publish this garbage I will despair of you and anyone you’ve ever met).
– Different journals have different reviewing policies. If they give you a template: stick to it. Some ask for a general paragraph, some for detailed comments on certain areas. Most will ask for a decision (Accept, Accept with Revisions, Reject) but you’re well within your rights to clarify any shades of gray on a decision. Stick to deadlines carefully: academic publishing is glacial enough as it is.
– Be clear about any revisions you suggest, offering guidance on critics who would enhance the argument, what can be done to make the argument clearer. Review the way you would like to be reviewed: in a helpful, courteous manner. Even if you have to turn something down, offering ideas for more suitable publication venues (after revisions) can be invaluable, especially for people starting out.
– Only review things you have a clue about. I get asked to do things a lot, but I only review articles, books etc when I have a good working knowledge of the field. It’s always nice to be asked to do something, but when you’re starting out, be clear about what you’re actually qualified to do.
– Don’t be afraid to ask journals and publishers to review for them! In the beginning of your career, a short book review can help get your name in major journals (although, don’t commit too much of your precious research time) and peer reviewing helps you see the process from both sites.
In short: review as you would like to be reviewed. Be prompt, professional and constructive.