Andrea Zellner is a Phd student in the Ed Psych/Ed Tech program at Michigan State University. She can be found on Twitter at @AndreaZellner .
As Phd students, it is common that we are expected to join the ranks of working academics in peer reviewing for conferences and journals. While the logistics of this endeavor vary from platform to platform, in general one volunteers or is asked to assist with peer review and is then provided with guidelines on how to do so. In my experience, I have been asked to review through my professional connections: they were familiar with my work and areas of (budding) expertise, and I was asked to review accordingly. Nonetheless, I found the task a bit daunting, and I thought it would be good to start a conversation here about the best ways to handle the task, especially as newbie academics in our fields.
1. Ask a grown up. While it isn’t ethical for your advisor to share articles they themselves are reviewing, they often have other graduate students who are trying to get something published who might volunteer as a guinea pig. As a general rule, academics usually have something lying around that’s in the right shape for a peer review that isn’t confidential. My advisor had me do a trial “review” and then we talked it through. I was able to hear him think aloud about what he noted and compare what he said with what I said. I also cornered various faculty in my department and asked them general questions about how they approach the peer review process, especially since some of them have been the editors of the journals in question. This gave me a basic understanding of the way academics in my field approach peer review.
2. Read the reviewer guidelines very carefully. I recently had the opportunity to hear an editor of a journal discuss how the editorial staff had made a concerted effort to change the review process at a particular journal. It was instructive to hear that editors might aim for a particular focus and tone for the peer review process and that the peer review guidelines reflect very deliberate choices on the part of the editors. It is very important to read and ask questions about anything that’s unclear in the peer review guidelines. Once these are understood, it is important to stick to those guidelines pretty strictly.
3. Focus on what is good and what will make the manuscript better. As a graduate student nearing the end of my program, I am in what feels like the “constant rejection” phase of publishing my work. As such, I’ve had a taste of the variety of rejections one can receive from various journals. While I have only experienced professional reviews with solid suggestions for improving my work, I have been shown some almost nasty reviews that my faculty or fellow grad students have received (I assume these are in my future as well). My point is to respectfully suggest that this is a stressful process as it is, with rejections outnumbering acceptances, and as rising academics joining the field we have an opportunity to dish out critique with kindness. Certainly point out weaknesses, but be sure that we notice the good as well. According to the editors I’ve spoken to, it is actually the grad students who have the harshest reviews. Remember, the perfect study or paper doesn’t exist. Adding new knowledge to the world is hard, and writing about it within a specified word count is even harder. Always give the authors the benefit of the doubt: maybe that crucial aspect of the methods section was cut in an earlier submission for length, for example.
4. Be aware of the pitfalls that may plague your own discipline’s peer review process. Recent failures to replicate foundational experiments in psychology and other sciences have led to a lot of finger-pointing, with one pointed squarely on the failures of peer review . Again, speaking to faculty in your department will help, but being aware of the larger conversations in your field via professional organizations or higher ed news will help you know where the issues might be. Being aware of these issues can help you avoid them: as flawed as peer review might be, it is still the dominant system that graduate students are expected to join. We have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and try to do better.
What are your strategies for tackling the peer review? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Image credit: Flickr user maxgiani  used under Creative commons license.