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by Claire Aitchison

Further to my earlier discussions on publishing during the doctorate, I’d like to talk about reviewing as a stepping stone pedagogy for learning to write for publication. Volunteering to review seems like a way to give oneself more work – true, but doing scholarly peer review can help develop publication skills, know-how, confidence and competence.

Anyone who has received reviewer feedback on their manuscript submissions is likely to have wondered about the reviewing process – and perhaps wondered about the value of doing some reviewing themselves. At an intuitive level, it’s seductive to imagine that doing reviewing would give us some insider knowledge that might benefit our writing and publication skills. Luckily, there’s some research that points to the value of reviewing .

What’s to be gained from doing peer review?

  • Improve your writing. Critically focusing on someone else’s writing can sharpen your awareness of your own writing foibles, idiosyncrasies and strengths.
  • Develop self-editing skills. Taking a critical eye to other people’s writing helps you develop self-editing skills when you apply the same reviewing and editing processes to your own work.
  • Up-to-date knowledge. As a reviewer you get access to the latest research, trends and debates in your field months, even years, ahead of publication.
  • Publication know-how. There is no doubt that knowing the system from the inside, as a reviewer, provides valuable insights. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. If you are aware of what a reader reviewer is expected to do, what they might look for, and how they might make judgements about manuscripts, you are more likely to be able to avoid such pitfalls yourself. If you are using scholarly peer review as a strategy for learning, then seek out those journals that circulate the comments of each of the manuscript reviewers. I have certainly found this practice illuminating – I love to see how others have reviewed the same article. It can be confirming to see other reviewers identify the same issues, and informative when they attend to quite different aspects in the paper.

How to build competencies for scholarly reviewing

As an editor of a scholarly academic journal, and as an academic author, I have come across inept reviewers whose critiques have been unacceptable. While many people learn by trial and error, my own view (particularly informed through my role as an editor) is that it’s preferable to develop some key skills and competencies before taking on peer reviewing for scholarly journals.

Here are some suggestions for building towards becoming a good reviewer.

  • Begin small. If you’ve been to a particular conference a couple of times, and especially if you have presented a paper at that conference, then volunteering to review conference abstracts can be a great way to learn the ropes. Most conference organizers are dead keen to find reviewers for the hundreds of conference abstracts they receive. Reviewing abstracts for conferences is generally a well-supported and manageable task whereby the reviewer is asked to judge a submitted abstract against criteria such as relevance to the conference theme, theoretical or methodological soundness, interest level and so on.
  • Begin local. One of the best ways to build reviewer skills is to join a writing group where members review each other’s work regularly. Writing group peer reviewing enables participants to hone skills for identifying strengths and weaknesses in a manuscript and for articulating those judgements in respectful ways. Furthermore, in a writing group, members can learn from doing reviewing (as regularly as fortnightly) AND can compare and discuss their feedback against that of other group members.
  • Mentoring. Supervisors and more experienced colleagues can be fantastic allies for learning reviewing practices. Having someone to talk over reviewing experiences, especially difficulties and challenges, can be invaluable. Obviously, high levels of trust and sensitivity need to be observed to maintain the levels of confidentiality required of blind reviewing.

Reviewing so often happens in a vacuum, in secret, and in isolation because of the requirements of blind review. But the very secretive and occluded nature of peer review is exactly what accounts for some of its biggest failings – not the least of which is the limited opportunities to find out about, discuss, debate and practise scholarly review.

I hope some of the issues raised here provide at least some avenues for us to begin to debunk the unnecessary mystery that shrouds the practices of scholarly review – and, importantly, help us build good reviewing practices.