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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

On Peer Reviewing

Sunday, December 04, 2011

I have spent much of the weekend peer reviewing an article for one of the leading journals in my research field. This post reflects on how difficult I found it to act as a peer reviewer at the highest academic level.

I have peer reviewed many times in the past, and even used to edit a journal - but only (and I use that word respectfully) at the postgraduate level. Reviewing at and for the postgraduate level whilst doing a PhD oneself is peer reviewing in the most precise sense of the term, "peer." My inclination as a postgraduate peer reviewer was to be sensitive to the author, knowing how I would want to be treated were I in their shoes. That is not to say that I was anything less than rigorous. However, the value of a postgraduate journal lies more in giving the submitter valuable career experience, than in contributing to the general field of knowledge. After all, work which is genuinely groundbreaking probably ought to be pitched at a professional-level journal, not a postgraduate one. Thus, to my mind, a peer reviewer for a postgraduate journal ought to be prepared to pass submissions that may not be the most groundbreaking or innovative work. Tacitly, then, I would approach a postgraduate review with a friendly, open-mind, as opposed to a critical, rejecting one.

But reviewing at a higher level for a top journal was a somewhat less amenable experience. I felt that it was my duty, in order to uphold the prestige of this particular journal, not simply to recommend the article on its face value. Yet at the same time, to suggest changes to the article meant myself, as an early-career academic, commenting and critiquing the work of an author who was, in all likelihood, not a peer but a superior, someone considerably more established and experienced in the field.

Peer reviewing requires one to have a total confidence in one's abilities and insights. I am not wholly sure I possess this. If I struggled to understand something, was this due to the author's phrasing, which I should therefore recommend for correction? Or was it simply due to my own ignorance? Where the author had missed out a potentially relevant citation or piece of literature, were they doing so because the connections would simply be - to a more established reader - self-evident? Where I was unsure about the author's use of particular terms and their conceptual overview, was this just me nit-picking for the sake of looking like I had commented carefully on the article?

I ended up making three substantive recommendations. Articulating these was itself quite a fraught process. I wanted to make it clear that I had on the whole found the article well worth publication. On the other hand, I wanted to reassure the editor that I had looked at it with sufficiently informed perception so as to request some well thought-out changes. Surely no article ever passes straight away, and surely most can be strengthened in some way through a second opinion (part of the value of the peer-review process). So I made my opinions felt in 1500 words of commentary, way more than I have ever received on my work, and more than I ever gave in a postgraduate review.

When I have been on the receiving end of peer review, there has been nothing worse than a vague or ill-formed suggestion from a reviewer, which complains about a problem but offers little in the way of possible solutions. But maybe I went too far the other way in my own delivery of a 1500 word review. As I was writing my mini-essay, I felt myself adopting the mentality of a teacher, not only diagnosing errors but also recommending cures. Maybe I ended up patronising the author with clear cut suggestions and solutions, rather than leaving it up to the author as to what to do to resolve the problems. Just a brief comment on a problem might have been self-evident for an established academic.

I am aware that I am being very vague in the above comments; so as to protect the blind peer-review process I cannot quote any specific examples of the article's problems or my solutions. It will be interesting to revisit this post once the article is published, to see if any of my comments have been taken on by author or editor. For now, I'd like to ask the academic community. Do you act in a deliberately sceptical way, knowing that a journal's value depends on its accepting only high-quality papers and not publishing dross because peer reviewers are too scared to condemn it? Or do you try to act like a friendly teacher towards a star pupil, noting errors and nudging them towards solutions which, you suspect, they already know?

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Posted by Alistair at 6:08 pm


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