On Peer Review

Peer review is integral to the publishing process, and is part of what is known as “service.” This blog examines the purpose of peer review, the kinds of peer review that scholars engage in, and provides tips on how to engage in peer review.

What is the purpose of peer review?

Scholars provide peer reviews to others as a way of assessing the quality of others’ work, providing feedback on other scholars’ arguments, and engaging in scholarly debates. Peer review is part of the process of scientific argumentation, and we are expected as scholars to allow our work to be reviewed and critiqued by others. Scholarly peer review can help sharpen our arguments, gain deeper knowledge and familiarity concerning literature in the field, and when the process works well—improve the quality of scholarly work.

Why do scholars engage in peer review?

For those readers who hope to gain positions in higher education, peer review is an important part of your job, and is part of the tri-partite mission of scholarly work, which involves research, teaching, and service. Reviewing is an expected part of scholarly service, and scholars are assessed annually on their contributions to service. Let’s look at the types of peer review that scholars engage in.

What kinds of peer review do scholars engage in?

In your career as a scholar, peer review is essential for the following:

  • manuscripts for journals (reviews are typically, but not always, anonymous).
  • book prospectuses and book manuscripts (reviews are typically anonymous and requested by publishing houses; reviewers receive either an honorarium or equivalent amount in books from the publishing houses).
  • abstracts for conference presentations.
  • dossiers for promotion and tenure (this is service work to the institutions where dossiers for promotions and tenure (P&T) are being assessed; reviewers send a signed letter of review to the institution that is reviewing people for P&T; these letters become part of the dossier as it moves forward through the review process).
  • documents for nominations for scholarships and awards.
  • students’ work, including papers for coursework, and theses and dissertations.
  • proposals for grant funding.
  • mentees’ draft documents for any of the above.

With the exception of honoraria offered by publishers for reviewing manuscripts prior to publication, and review of dissertations and theses submitted for doctoral research in some countries outside the US, peer review is expected, and reviewers are not paid outside their institutional salaries.

What happens when people outside a scholar’s interest areas review their work?

If your peers are not familiar with your discipline, then they may not be able to provide substantive feedback on your topics of interest. In fact, when grant proposals get submitted for review, there is no guarantee that readers will understand your topic. When dossiers for promotion go through various levels of review at an institution, they will be read and voted on by people who are not in your field of inquiry. Yet peers who do not have expertise in your field can offer valuable feedback on your writing and scholarly arguments. As scholars, we all need to be able to write to people who do not have expertise in our area. Therefore, before submitting manuscripts for publication, it is helpful to ask peers to review your work. You can help your colleagues by asking for specific sorts of feedback. For example, does the logic of my argument work? Did my writing engage your attention? Are there any gaps in understanding because I did not provide definitions of terms? It is always helpful to have a reader for your work who is not an “insider” as they will be able to identify aspects of your writing that need further clarification.

It takes a certain amount of trust that others will treat us fairly when we submit our work for others to review. (for more on trust see https://qualpage.com/2020/09/17/peer-review-week-2020/). We need different sorts of feedback at different stages in our writing. For example, if something is in an early draft, you will want comments on the ideas you are presenting and how you might present those more clearly rather than assistance with editing and structure of the manuscript.

For more on how to write a review, see https://qualpage.com/2018/02/22/how-to-write-a-review/

Be sure to both take opportunities to provide peer review on others’ work and seek feedback on your own writing as well. We all have much to learn from readers.

Kathy Roulston

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