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Polite Peer Review?: Charlesworth Knowledge can help


Peer review can be a thankless task from all perspectives. Editors don’t like going through the onerous search process to find willing and useful reviewers, and researchers often feel imposed upon when asked to participate. From the researcher's perspective, what’s the point of spending one's time reading and commenting on someone else’s paper? Training can help, although this is almost never provided by universities or research groups: do you know what’s in it for you? Why bother to put time and effort into peer review?


In a recent piece on peer review in the Times Higher Education Supplement, part of a larger article about ‘things academics hate’, the THES asked a group of working academics to write about the things that really upset them as part of their work: one common complaint is being asked to perform peer review. Impolitely.


This shouldn’t happen: peer review should be a positive experience for all parties, but far too often it’s not. Why? it’s often due to negative attitudes. Editors form preconceived ideas about papers and just want validation from reviewers, while academics often initiate this process looking for reasons to reject papers rather than providing suggestions for improvement. At Charlesworth Knowledge, we can help with training from both sides of the fence, supporting both reviewers and editors.


The peer review process impacts heavily on both academia and the publishing industry. This is how the academic literature is policed; journals rely on assessments of submitted papers from researchers in the field (‘peers’) and academics often feel ‘honour-bound’ to participate. I got an email last week from a researcher saying ‘Ok, I’ll do this review, but don’t ask me again for at least three months. I’ve done my bit’. Peer review is often viewed as ‘part of the job’, even though many university systems around the work don’t recognise this work in performance assessment (the US is one exception, potentially explaining some geographic skew in peer reviewers globally).


What do academics really gain from this process? Other than experience and access to upcoming publications in their field (a form of private preprint access) and the chance to build a relationship with particular journals? Are these benefits enough to make the process worthwhile? One might argue, and many have, that the rise of publically accessible preprint servers and more open journal systems that allow community comments will lead to the overall demise of anonymous peer review. It’s review, but by osmosis: post an article you’ve just written onto a preprint server and those interested in your work with ‘the community’ will engage and post comments. Those who arent interested, wont. It is arguable that this might eliminate the often ardous process of ‘reviewer selection’ current carried out by journal managers working for publishing companies, or people like me – academics – who just perform this process for free.


In the THES, the writer complained about ‘thankless’ peer review; automated emails from an anonymous journal office requesting reviews on short deadlines, in this case the two-week period over Christmas and the New Year. Obviously unnecessary.


So, peer review management, increasingly provided as a service by companies via software, can be more personalised: editors can actually engage with reviewers to make them feel actually part of a process, rather than faceless and un-thanked. I’ve edited a journal for the last 15 years and I find that tweaking automated emails to reviewers to make these more friendly and personable works: people do respond more favorably to contact if it feels like it’s actually coming from a real person. Our system sends out automated reminders that a review is due in, say, two weeks: I often find myself apologising to reviewers; again, the personal touch.


Check out our range of Charlesworth Knowledge training courses to learn how we can help you or your institution. Perhaps the PhD students and other early-career researchers at your university would benefit from peer-review training? Perhaps your scholarly society would like to support training courses for members at an upcoming conference?



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