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In the dozen years we have co-edited the journal ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, we have read many external reports supplied by colleagues in our discipline. We have also written peer reviews for other journals ourselves. Throughout those experiences, we have been struck by a peculiar challenge presented by the reader report: the challenge of audience.
Peer reviews are commissioned and read by editors, but they are also sent to the author of the piece being reviewed. Because journal editors are the ones who request reader reports, it’s natural to assume they are the primary audience for your review. However, we would like to propose that you think of the author as your primary audience and write your report accordingly.
Why do we recommend this approach? It allows journals to act more like mentors than gatekeepers. If a reviewer imagines they are writing for the journal editor, they compose according to what they imagine the journal editor needs: a judgment about the quality of the article, including an answer to the big question of whether they should publish it or not. If the journal editor is your audience, it might be a virtue if your report is brief (journal editors are busy) or written in conceptual shorthand (you are, after all, writing to an expert in the field). Nor is it a problem if you choose to write caustically (you can all share the joke of what this author thought was publishable).
At the same time, however, these qualities make a report not very useful or possibly even hurtful to the author of the submission. If, in contrast, the reviewer thinks they are writing primarily for the author, they will likely spend more time explaining what they see as the article’s strengths and weaknesses, shaping their explanations to what they think the author can absorb. It’s also much harder—although, of course, not impossible—to be dismissive.
Including the positive, shaping your suggestions to meet the writer where they are, adopting an encouraging tone—this all probably sounds familiar. A second reason we advocate that a reviewer write primarily to the author is because it enables the reviewer to take advantage of something they know a lot about: how to comment on students’ work. Everything you already know as a teacher about how to write helpful comments to students about their papers is relevant to the work you perform as a reviewer of journal articles. If you are recommending the journal reject an article—comparable to assigning a bad grade—it’s important to be encouraging, to identify strengths of the work as well as limitations, to give advice about how to improve the work and to think of an article as a work in progress. As with student papers, it’s also important to avoid overwhelming the author with recommendations.
Yet there’s one habit of mind we can slip into when giving feedback that isn’t always helpful to the author of the article you’re reviewing, who is after all a colleague and not a student: the sense that you know more than the author. You might be an expert in the field and well published yourself, but that knowledge of the discipline and how to write about it can turn into a liability if it encourages a patronizing tone. It can also be a problem if it makes you reject an article that productively and insightfully challenges your field’s paradigms or values.
For example, the article might focus on material that hasn’t been conventionally analyzed, or it might analyze familiar material in new ways. Rejecting this kind of article is one way that reviewers unwittingly disadvantage younger voices and minoritized authors who want to question the way things have always been done. Not every article that challenges a discipline is doing it well, but some of them are—and those kinds of challenging articles can have a huge impact by taking the field in new and productive directions. In other words, we think it’s important for reviewers to approach articles with the attitude that authors can teach them something, rather than the other way around.
We recommend that you offer the author suggestions for improvement, whether you think that person can revise and resubmit or that the article has too far to go to be publishable at this time. Unless an article is nearly ready for publication, aim for a length of one to two single-spaced pages. A shorter report won’t offer the detail that an author is likely to find valuable in revising either for the present journal or another one. For the editor, a short report will also be unhelpful in reaching and conveying the decision about why an article was rejected or how the author needs to revise to get the article published.
That said, too long a report might indicate that a reviewer has lost sight of the big picture. In addition, the common advice to limit your suggestions to two or three larger conceptual or structural issues when providing feedback to students applies here, too: the author of an article likely can’t address more than that without writing an entirely new article. However, do point out things like factual errors and other smaller, nongrammatical problems you see.
You might be wondering whether our advice to offer the authors suggestions for improvement might be confusing for authors (and editors) whose articles you are recommending the editors reject. We assure you that rarely happens. We recommend including your final recommendation in your report, but even if you don’t, both author and editor can infer from the kind of recommendations you’re providing how far it is from being publishable at this time. A suggestion to integrate the work of one relevant scholar is very different from a suggestion that an author choose a scholarly conversation to engage with. If you’re still worried, many journals offer separate locations for indicating your final decision and writing comments that are for the editor’s eyes only.
This worry—that authors might be too encouraged—reveals how journals have traditionally functioned as gatekeepers. Certainly, one of the functions of a journal is to provide strong scholarship that will move a field forward. But to return to a point we made above, like many other journal editors, we want our journal to have another function: to serve as a site for the mentoring and nurturing of scholars, especially beginning or minoritized ones. Scholars will not submit just one article to one journal in their career; they will continue, if all goes well, to produce scholarship and develop as writers and thinkers. Similarly, the article you feel should be rejected will likely, if its author receives the right kind of feedback, be revised and sent to another journal—or if abandoned, the author will use your advice to shape their next article. We are all evolving writers, but our evolution can slow or even stop if we receive feedback that is caustic or points out only how we failed. The best feedback suggests a path forward as a writer and scholar.
A Reader Report Template
While we don’t think it’s the only way to write a report, we’d like to describe here some ways to give specific feedback in yours. Start with a one-paragraph summary of the essay’s argument, its contribution or potential contribution to scholarly discussions on the topic(s) and its other strengths. That achieves several things. It shows to the author that you understand what they’re saying, have read the essay carefully and recognize the contribution the author is making or hoping to make. If, in the author’s view, that paragraph does not do a good job summarizing the argument, it should indicate to them that they haven’t been as clear as they hoped. Such an opening establishes your authority and ethos to both the author and editor: it shows that you have read the article carefully, know the field and are generous as well as rigorous.
Alternatively, you might start with your overall recommendation (publish, decline the article or require revisions) and the main reasons behind it. Like the thesis in a student essay, the recommendation and main reasons serve to introduce and organize the details explained in the rest of the report.
If the article is not a straight acceptance, spend the body of the report on two or three higher-level recommendations, as well as any smaller suggestions you have. If you feel the author needs to integrate particular scholarship, it’s very helpful to name the titles you want them to consult.
Do not copyedit the article—among other problems, it will eat up a tremendous amount of your time. Rather, use your report to help the author clarify the stakes of the argument, strengthen the recognition and treatment of other relevant scholarship on the topic, and improve the support for the essay’s claims, the article’s structure and the ideas and concepts they (could) develop or apply.
The only reason to suggest line edits is if you see errors or gaffes you think a copy editor might not notice. To both author and journal editor, an excessive focus on minutiae suggests the reviewer has lost sight of the forest for the trees. Line edits come later in the process—after the article has been accepted but before it has been published.
If you opened your report with a summary of the essay, you might end the report with a recap of your recommendations for revision, although that’s not essential. Authors are likely to read reports several times, so restatement is probably unnecessary. The same is true for editors. Instead, you might close the report with your overall recommendation: accept, reject or revise and resubmit.
If instead you opened your report with your overall recommendation and the main reasons for it, no conclusion is necessary, although you might end on an encouraging note: what you learned from the essay, the importance of the topic and your eagerness to see the essay, a revised version or future work in print.
A Note to Authors
Heeding our own advice to write with authors primarily in mind, we’d like to end by suggesting to authors that thinking about reader reports in the way we have described might provide some emotional buffering against unkind reports. That unkind review might still contain useful advice about how to revise your essay, and we recommend taking that advice seriously, but you should also know that the writer of the report was likely thinking primarily about the editor when writing that review and not the author.
At many journals, including ours, such a report will raise red flags for the editor and might constitute the rare case when we do not send it to the author. We hope that this article will help prevent such reports in the first place.