Peer reviewing papers, book chapters and proposals, conference abstracts and grant applications is becoming an ever more important skill for young academics to acquire. So what are the key principles they should keep in mind?
“Don’t agree to review things which are not within your area of expertise” was one of the most important pointers from Rosemary Deem, vice-principal (education) at Royal Holloway, University of London, who is shortly to speak at a workshop on the topic for the Society for Research into Higher Education.
She said that reviewers should give themselves at least three hours for their first reviews (although this depends partly on the length of the paper) and should “read through the material a couple of times before you write anything”.
Inexperienced reviews, in Professor Deem’s view, are often “so focused on giving their criticism that they don’t think about what it’s like to receive something which just consists of criticism. It’s like marking a piece of coursework. If you said to a student ‘I don’t know why you got out of bed that day, this is absolutely awful’, the student is not going to learn anything or probably even read it properly. It’s the same with a review.”
She added that criticisms should be stated “really clearly” and “summarise what the person would need to do in order to improve the piece with bullet or numbered points”.
“If you mention someone they haven’t cited, give a reference, not just ‘Look at Smith’s work’,” Professor Deem said.
What should a reviewer do if an abstract adopts a methodology or theoretical approach that they are unsympathetic to?
There are essentially two options, argued Professor Deem:“You might decide you don’t want to review the paper. If you do review it, you have to try and be as objective as possible. You can’t just say: ‘I wouldn’t have used this kind of methodology or experiment.’ The person has used it, so you have to ask yourself: ‘Is this a plausible approach, even if it’s not one that I would have chosen?’”
Peer reviewing can be hard to fit into an already busy life. Yet Professor Deem said she regarded it as “a citizenship obligation” that also has important career- and skills-building benefits.
“It allows you to stand back from your own work,” she said, “and see how criticisms you’ve made of others might apply to you too. It may help you write a good abstract, for example, because it gives you a better understanding of what people are looking for, rather than just what you want to say.”
On the frequent occasions when professors covertly pass on reviewing duties to their postdocs, suggested Professor Deem, the postdocs should use this as an opportunity to raise their profile. Contact the editors, she urged, and say: “I’ve been asked by Professor X to do this. Is that OK? Here are my details.”
“Not only should editors know who is reviewing for them but, if you’re good, they might want to add you to their database and use you again,” Professor Deem added.
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