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Myths and Misconceptions about Academic Peer Review

Myths and Misconceptions about Academic Peer Review

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April 10, 2018
Myths and Misconceptions about Academic Peer Review - Close up on the edges of a stack of books

In my last post, I went over the basics of writing a useful peer review report (without being a jerk). Today I want to debunk a few of the many myths surrounding peer review.

Myth 1: Grad students are not qualified to review

At the end of the day, reviewing is a mixture of critical reading, grading, and light developmental editing. These are core academic skills that anyone in a PhD program should know how to do. Unless otherwise noted by the journal or conference organizers, graduate students can review (and often write much more thorough reviews than senior academics).

Myth 2: You should never review a manuscript if you know the author

Most peer review for conference papers and journal articles is “double-blind,” which means that in theory, the reviewer and the author don’t know each others’ identities. However, academic subfields are small and if you if you actively participate in yours, at some point you will end up reviewing work by people you know.

If you know for sure that you know who the author is (for a double-blind review), you should tell the editor or conference organizer. They might reassign the review or they might ask if that means you cannot give a fair and honest assessment of the submission. Whether you can is up to you.

You need to get used to giving your peers honest and constructive feedback about their work. You should never accept a review assignment just because you like the author. Depending on the service or editorial roles you take on, you are going to be rejecting friends someday. It’s not personal, it’s just the way academia works.

Myth 3: You can’t review unless the text is about your specific topic of interest

Your field is not the same as your topic. Your skill set and knowledge of theory and modes of analysis should extend beyond your individual project topic. Sure, if you don’t know the difference between pie and a p value, you shouldn’t review a paper whose conclusions are based on statistics. And if you don’t know the difference between calligraphy and ethnography, then you should not review a study that uses ethnographic methods. But most likely you are able to offer a good review if you follow the review criteria and don’t accept review assignments that are well outside your fields.

Myth 4: All publishers, journals, and conferences use the same review criteria

They do not. This is why the first thing you should do is ask for and look over the review criteria. Usually the publisher, conference program committee, or journal editor will tell you what to assess. Follow those guidelines. If they don’t, make sure you have some rubric guiding your feedback.

Myth 5: The reviewer decides whether a manuscript is accepted or rejected

No. You are just one among two or three (possibly more) other reviewer votes that inform the decision of a programmer or editor who makes the ultimate decision. Your assessment will not guarantee anything for the manuscript.

You might suggest a revise and resubmit for an article that is rejected; you might suggest a journal reject an article that the editor in fact decides to accept.

Writing a clear, thorough, and constructive reader report means that the author(s) can take from your review regardless of the editor or programmer’s decision. Providing such a professional review also makes a better a case for your vote to the ultimate decider.

Myth 6: If you reject a manuscript you also submitted to, your manuscript is more likely to be accepted

Also not true. You are almost never the only reviewer for a manuscript and not the final decision-maker. Additionally, if you don’t make a good case for rejecting/accepting a given submission but the other reviewers do, then all you’ve really done is exposed yourself as a not-great reviewer.

As for your own submission, you have no idea how you will be reviewed. So don’t try to be unreasonably critical of someone else thinking it will make you look good. It doesn’t. Don’t be a jerk.

Myth 7: Peer review reports should be mean or nice

They should be neither. A good review offers a fair, thorough, and well supported assessment of a manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses. This is not the same as an “objective” assessment because of course you have your own biases about what literature should be cited, what method or forms of analysis work best, or what good scholarly writing looks like. That’s fine.

When you review, you are judging the quality of the submission and always also offer feedback on how it can improve. Some of that might feel “mean” (and there are certainly jerky reviewers out there), but if you approach reviewing with a sense of generosity and a genuine desire to help the author make the best manuscript possible, you will never be Reviewer 2.

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