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by Cally Guerin

You may have been following the furore surrounding the peer review of an article submitted by two postdoctoral scientists, Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head. In case you haven’t read about it, they had undertaken a survey regarding gender differences in transitions from PhD to postdoc. The review they received from a PLOS ONE journal has since become the subject of much astonished discussion—for example, see Retractionwatch, ScienceInsider and The Conversation, as well as the ongoing talk in Ingleby’s Twitter feed.

In a nutshell, the reviewer suggested that the two female authors should “find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors)” in order to avoid their apparently “ideologically biased assumptions” and that higher publication rates by male doctoral students might be linked to the idea that “male doctoral students can probably run a mile a bit faster than female doctoral students”. Presumably, the reviewer believed that the comments were offered as scholarly critique; most others felt they were the product of ill-informed gender bias.

I’d come across this discussion just as I was preparing to talk to some doctoral students about critical thinking. It’s a topic that some students feel has been done to death, a regular feature in any kind of university preparation program. Yet at the same time, it’s a concept that many students still struggle to understand, let alone perform in their own work. It seems to me that critical thinking is exactly the skill or competence expected when engaging in peer review, just as much as it is expected to be demonstrated when writing a doctoral thesis.

It’s fine to tell doctoral students that they need to “think critically” and to offer their own opinions on the scholarship in their field, to assess the value of what they read, and to evaluate the arguments put forward by other researchers. But doing so is not always easy. Despite the issues raised by the story mentioned above, the academic journal articles students read are usually of a very high standard, having been through an appropriately rigorous review process. The point of that process is to assess the evidence and how it was generated, and to weigh up the claims put forward on the basis of that evidence on behalf of other readers. To some extent, then, the critical thinking of judgement and assessment has already been done for the reader.

The most useful approach to critical thinking that I’ve come across is that by Robyn Barnacle (2006). She provides a list of questions of the kind that we expect to see in advice about how to develop critical thinking (drawn from the classic handbook by Keeley & Bruce 1994/2007). But, much more interestingly in my opinion, Barnacle then goes on to broaden the concept to include the idea of critical thinking as generative, in that it creates the conditions for proposing new theories or ideas.

And perhaps most helpful of all, she makes the point that it is very difficult to be a critical thinker when one is a novice in the field. It is much harder to identify what has been omitted from a discussion if you haven’t yet read very much in the field; it is often difficult to imagine alternative points of view if you’ve only recently started to think about an idea. For doctoral students grappling with how to demonstrate their own critical thinking, this can be encouraging and comforting in equal measure—it is reasonable to assume that they will get better at critical thinking the more they learn about their topic.

Barnacle also reminds us that becoming a critical thinker is a transformative process and changes who we are and the way we approach the world. Critical thinking should create scholarly communities where peer reviewers will not write the kind of review received by Ingleby and Head; in parallel, critical thinking should also provide researchers with the skills to respond productively when they receive reviews where “critical thinking” appears to be based on misinformation.

What have you found useful in developing critical thinking skills in doctoral candidates? What has been key in extending your own understanding of what critical thinking might mean?


R. Barnacle (2006) On being a critical researcher. In C. Denholm & T. Evans (eds), Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Successful Doctoral Study in Australia and New Zealand. Camberwell, Vic: ACER Press.

M.N. Browne & S.M. Keeley (1994/2007) Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. 8th Edn. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.