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This guest post is from Sue Starfield, professor in the School of Education and the Director of the Learning Centre at UNSW Australia. Sue’s interests include tertiary academic literacies, doctoral writing, writing for publication and identity in academic writing. If you enjoy this, you may like these related posts.

It struck me recently that I spend large amounts of my everyday academic life carrying out reviews of various sorts. Besides the ongoing feedback I provide to my doctoral students on their writing, usually through ‘track changes’, I do many other kinds of reviews. Quite a number of these are quite high stakes such as examining a doctoral thesis or reviewing a book proposal for a publisher for example. Yet it is difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to exemplars of these kinds of texts.

Hyland and Diani (2009, p. 1) noted that “what academics mainly do is evaluate”. As Langveldt and Kyvik (2011, p. 199) point out in their examination of the multiple roles researchers play as evaluators in the course of their academic lives, these roles often have a gatekeeping function as researchers “provide or deny access to opportunities for fellow colleagues to do research, to publish research, and to get tenure or promotion”. But if these review/evaluation genres are not publicly available, how then do doctoral students as early career academics learn to write them?

As my colleague, Brian Paltridge, found in his study of how scholars learned to review journal articles, there is very little explicit instruction on offer. Over half of those surveyed said that they relied on reviews they’d received on their own articles submitted to peer-reviewed journals, while others said they’d learned by ‘doing it’. Only two of the 45 respondents reported that they had learned to write article reviews as part of a graduate school assignment. If you, dear reader, are currently reviewing a journal article, think for a moment about how you’ve learned to review.

Given the gate-keeping functions of so many review/evaluation genres, could supervisors and the academy be doing more to assist new scholars acquire the capacity to helpfully, fairly and equitably review the work of their peers? Should we be more public about them – providing exemplars, for instance, as many of us do for undergraduate students as we ‘induct’ them into our discipline’s ways of thinking, talking and writing? Should we be talking more to each other and to our doctoral students about the responsibilities and ethics of reviewing – and about making judgements? My own personal reviewing yardstick is whether I’d be willing to put my name to the blind review – a useful moment of reflection between writing the review and submitting it. Would I be happy to stand beside it and for the ‘reviewee’ to know I wrote it? That’s often the moment when I do some last minute tweaking!

Kiley and Mullins (2004, p.134) recommended mentoring of novice thesis examiners by more experienced colleagues; workshops for examiners; inviting novice examiners to sit on higher degree committees where they get a chance to read, and hear discussed, a range of examiners’ reports; supervising and examining Honours theses; and modifying institutional regulations regarding confidentiality to allow novice examiners to consult more experienced colleagues. These are all useful suggestions that could be adopted across a range of these often ‘hidden’ genres to help novice scholars.

Here then is my (growing) list of review genres I’ve been asked to engage in over my academic life – some of which I’ve learned about quite recently as I’ve ‘ascended’ the academic ladder. Some are commonly known as ‘reviews’, others have titles such as ‘reference’- I see them as all involving assessment and judgement. I’ve classified them in terms of whether the person being reviewed -‘the reviewee’ – knew who I was; whether guidelines were provided; whether I’d seen examples of this type of review written by peers; and also the extent to which the evaluation was formative or summative. Some reviews are both formative and summative in nature as they allow opportunities for response and revision as well as involve decisions about outcomes. Others such as job references allow no response from the reviewee. Most journals I’ve reviewed for allow you to see the other reviewers’ comments once the editor’s decision has been made and I’ve found this to be an invaluable learning opportunity.

 

Genre My identity known to subject of review Review seen by reviewee Guidelines provided I’ve seen examples written by others Formative (F)

/Summative (S)

Book review Yes Yes Not really Yes S
Peer review for journal articles   Yes Yes Yes F
Thesis examination

 

Yes Yes Yes Yes Mine & my students F
Job application references Yes   Yes   S
Promotion references Yes   Yes   S
Book proposals   Yes Yes Yes of proposals I’ve written F
Book reviews – reviewing the completed book prepublication Sometimes Yes Yes Yes of books I’ve written F
Grant application reviews   Yes Yes Yes of proposals I’ve written F
Review of colleagues’ applications for awards Yes Yes Yes Yes F
*Review of job/promotion applications     Yes   S

*only discovered this one recently

Finally, we should all bear in mind the golden rule of reviewing karma – what goes around, comes around. Reviewing, although unrewarded and under-recognised in university life, is a sustaining part of our daily practice – one day we are reviewers and the next we are being reviewed. So, do as you would be done by.

References

Hyland, K. and Diani, G. 2009. Academic evaluation: Review genres in university settings. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan.

Kiley, M. & Mullins, G. (2004). Examining the examiners: How inexperienced examiners approach the assessment of research theses. International Journal of Educational Research, 41, 121–135

Langfeldt, L. & Kyvik, S. (2011). Researchers as evaluators: tasks, tensions and politics. Higher Education, 62, 199-212.

Paltridge, B. (2013) Learning to review submissions to peer reviewed journals: How do they do it? International Journal for Researcher Development, 4, 6 – 18.

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