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Tips for Giving & Receiving Feedback on Journal Articles (via Peer Review)

20170224_140106I was part of a great WA Communication Culture Media panel today on the theme of feedback and was specifically asked to comment on receiving and giving feedback on journal articles (mainly via peer review). It was a great and wide-ranging conversation, and clearly applicable well beyond the immediate audience, so I thought I’d post my tips for journal feedback here.

Receiving Feedback via Peer Reviews

[1] Be Humble. Your peer reviewers are almost always providing free labour when undertaking peer reviews. Sometimes they’ve been mentored and have a great and encouraging system for giving feedback that makes it easy to receive. Often, however, they’re replicating a model of peer review that’s more combative. Either way, most peer reviews (even the dreaded ‘Reviewer 2’) have something useful in them. Be humble and try and find those useful points. That doesn’t mean taking all criticism to heart. Nor does it mean your peer reviews are necessarily right. Be they do exist, and someone took the time to write them, so try and find what’s valuable in them, even if you have to read around sometimes unnecessarily combative language and framing.

[2] Know The Limits of What You Are Willing to Change. Often peer reviews will suggest an article demonstrate more familiarity with a field, or engage with more specific work. Even if this feels unnecessary, it’s probably worth doing. However, if a review rejects your overall argument, or frame, it’s good to have decided how much you are willing to change, and how much you won’t. How important is it to you or your career to publish in this journal? Which line don’t you want to cross in terms of changing your framework or argument? If the reviews ask too much, and the editors want those reviews taken as a blueprint for change, then sometimes it’s okay to pull the article and find somewhere more appropriate. Just know where that line is for you. Peers are humans, too; sometimes their reviews do ask more than is reasonable for what you want an article to achieve.

[3] Use Your Response Meaningfully (& Follow the Instructions for Revision!). After you’ve received peer reviews and are invited to revise your article, you’ll usually be asked to provide a summary of what you’ve changed in the article. This is also your chance to dialogue with the editors and peer reviewers (if it’s going to have a second round of review). If your reviews have been contradictory, or you’ve deliberately not followed specific suggestions, explain your rationale here. Editors and reviewers aren’t machines, and will often agree with your thinking (not always, I should add, but often). Equally, if you get specific instructions – for example, to use tracked changes or highlighting to immediately make alterations obvious – then follow these precisely! For editors and reviewers, it can be very frustrating trying to see what’s been changed if that’s not clearly flagged!

[4] Be timely. While reviews and revisions should be taken seriously, and everyone has many things to do, it’s best to fit these revisions in as soon as you can. This expedites things from the journal’s perspective and your own! The best articles are finished ones!

Giving Feedback and Writing Peer Reviews

[1] Be timely. Peer review is usually free labour provided by scholars. Know how much you can reasonably and meaningfully review in a given year. But once you accept the role as reviewer, please stick to the requested reviewing timeline if you possibly can. Journal editors struggle to find enough peer reviewers, and hate having to chase reviewers for late reviews. More to the point, it can lead to stagnation in scholarship if an article takes 6 or 9 months for the first round of review. So, only commit if you know you’ve got time, but once you’re committed to a peer review, make the time to do it.

[2] Be generous. Generosity doesn’t mean accepting articles that aren’t ready for publication. It does mean, framing all feedback constructively and, ideally, positively. If you’re rejecting a paper outright, giving the author a roadmap to improve that article and become a better scholar is still important (indeed, perhaps more important than the acceptances or minor review recommendations). Equally, don’t be the person who responds by saying ‘Well, if I was writing on this topic I’d have done it this way.’ You didn’t write it. Does the article add to scholarship on its own terms? Academia has far too many versions of combative review. Peer reviews can always be generous of spirit, even if they’re ultimately not recommending publication. Reviews aren’t just reviews; they’re a form of mentorship.

[3] Be precise. The most frustrating comments (wearing either my editor or author hat) are the ones that make broad statements without being precise. ‘The argumentation is unclear.’ ‘Needs to engage with the core scholars in X field.’ If the argument needs work, try and indicate where. If there are 4 key scholars you think an article needs to dialogue with, mention their names. While it might not suit everyone, I’ve started giving all peer review feedback as a series of specific and clear numbered points; a checklist of changes, essentially. In my opinion, a clear and precise roadmap to what you think would make the article better is the most useful thing a peer review can provide.

Feedback Doesn’t Stop Once an Article or Publication is Out!

[1] Share Widely! Most journals will let an author archive a pre-print (ie the submitted version of an article, before peer review) and, after a time delay, a post-print (the peer reviewed but not paginated version). Use this to populate your open access institutional repository, personal website archive, or elsewhere. If your journal allows it, post to academic social networks like Academia.edu and ResearchGate.

[2] Publicise on Social Media. Increasingly, academics find out about each other’s work through social networks as much as searches and alerts. If you’re using Twitter or Facebook or other online platforms to engage with your academic peers, then share links to your work there. Point to the pre-prints when they’re posted, and point to the final published versions once they’re up online. Celebrate your publications, and celebrate (and retweet) great work by your peers and colleagues! If you get meaningful questions, comments or offers of collaboration, that’s pretty decent feedback, too!

[3] Engage Beyond the Ivory Tower. One of the skills scholars often lack is translating their work for audiences beyond academia. Yet press releases, or writing short summary pieces, such as those in The Conversation, can make your work far more accessible, and ensure it can have the widest possible engagement and impact. This sort of engagement does take some work, but if you’ve just written the most amazing article ever, and you want an audience, then engaging publicly will make your work available to the widest audience.

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