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Understanding the ‘Five Stages of Peer Review’

Understanding the ‘Five Stages of Peer Review’

Journal editors routinely send out email ‘requests for peer review’. I got one this morning: ‘Dear x, We would be grateful if you would kindly agree to act as a reviewer for this paper.  The abstract appears at the end of this letter, along with the names of the authors’. Perhaps you’ve recently been the lucky recipient of a similar email? Bear in mind that this process is not random: You will have been invited to peer-review a manuscript submitted to a journal because you: (1) Have published papers on similar topics yourself in the past and so have appeared on a journal manuscript workflow search engine (e.g. ScholarOne); (2) Are already known to a subject-area editor, or; (3) Have been suggested as a suitable reviewer by the authors of the paper in question. Either way, what’s the next step? Should you accept the journal editor’s request and spend your valuable time working as a peer-reviewer of somebody else’s research?


You might find yourself passing through what we at Charlesworth Knowledge call the ‘Five Stages of Peer Review’.

Stage One: Denial.

Academics, especially students, tend to react with initial denial when receiving a request for peer review. They think: ‘Why me? I’m not good enough or experienced enough to be asked to perform peer review for this prestigious journal’. This is one common manifestation of so-called ‘imposter syndrome’. Our advice here is: Don’t worry! You’ve been invited to perform peer review because you are good enough: You have either been recommended by one of the authors of the paper in question or your name (and email) have been sourced by the editor. Consider this as an opportunity, if you genuinely have the time to take the review on.


Stage Two: Anger.

The next common reaction people experience when receiving requests for peer review is anger: I don’t have the time to do this! This paper is 8,000 words long: That’s going to take me a whole day to work on! What’s in it for me? Academics know that very often peer review is a thankless task. People often say things like: ‘My university department does not recognise this as part of my job. The papers you publish, once peer-reviewed (free of charge) are then placed behind a paywall and not everyone can access them!’ Our advice, again, is to consider peer review as an opportunity: To contribute to your field in a positive, constructive way while at the same time developing your constructive critical skills when assessing the work of others. This is a key transferrable skill that will stand you in good stead in any future employment, academic or otherwise.


Stage Three: Bargaining.

Considering actually taking on a review? The next common stage in this process tends to be bargaining. Academics often write letters to editors at this point: ‘You gave me just three weeks to work on this paper, but I need more time. I’m very busy at the moment with teaching and university administration, as well as working on my own research. Can I get the paper back to you after six weeks?’. ‘Can I show this paper to other colleagues to get their opinions? Can I include a PhD student working with me?’ These are all very common responses that editors receive from prospective peer reviewers; almost always, bargaining with editors will meet with a positive response (they need you more than you need them!). Our advice is to take on peer-review assignments on your own terms.


Stage Four: Depression.

Academics tend to agree to perform peer review and then wait until the very last moment to actually complete this task. I’ve just completed a review this morning for a journal in Japan, for example, right on the deadline. This is quite normal. People tend to pass through this stage in the peer-review process; academics typically busy have full schedules, leaving little time to work on the review. Feelings like: ‘I’ve agreed to do this but time is running out’, ‘I’m going to have to take longer than expected and let the journal down’ are common along with ‘What will the editor think of me?’ and ‘I’m going to hold up this paper!’. Our online materials and workshops, booked via institutions, can help you to manage your time more effectively and avoid feelings of depression. Our advice here is to clear some time each day, and turn off your social media and email, so that you can sit down and complete tasks such as peer review. Editors are very used to extending deadlines and waiting on comments about papers!


Stage Five: Acceptance.

Having decided to find the time to sit down and work on a review, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re doing this in order to learn something and to make a positive contribution. Try to approach these tasks with a positive mindset; find reasons to accept the paper once improvements have been made that will help the authors, rather than reasons for negativity or reasons to reject the paper.


As part of our peer-review training at Charlesworth Knowledge, we aim to help young researchers be as effective as possible when participating in this process. It can be both daunting and flattering to receive a request from a journal to work on a paper; at the same time, how can you quickly and easily put together an effective set of comments to send back to an editor and be a ‘useful’ peer reviewer?


Charlesworth Knowledge provides a range of training services, including workshops and expert advice, aimed at helping you to become better at peer review. Please check out our website or get in touch with one of our team for more information.


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