Peer Reviewing as a Foundation of Research Culture (Or, how not to be that peer reviewer)

by Heidi LM Jacobs
Leddy Library, University of Windsor

When you talk to published scholars, everyone has a horror story to share about a bad peer reviewer. Stories can range from the amusing to the incredulous. Over the years, I’ve had some excellent peer reviewers: these are readers who take the time to read my work carefully, see what I’m trying to do, and then find ways to make my article better. My work is always better because of those reviewers and I am grateful for them. But I’ve also had reviewers who lean more toward hurtful or harmful rather than helpful. Here are some of the comments I’ve personally received in the past few years that would fall into that “less than helpful” category:
• “Maybe you could talk to a faculty member on your campus who could teach you how to do research.”
• “Writing down your own thoughts about teaching is not research. You can’t just make statements about what you think. You need to use surveys and data to make claims.”
• Entire review: “Uninteresting. Unpublishable. Reject.”
• “I know very little about this area and don’t work in the area writer is talking about. However, if the writer explored [an entirely different topic] it would be a much more interesting article.”
I should note that all of the responses above are from peer reviews of articles that went on to be published and well-received elsewhere; one even made a “best instruction article of the year” list. As someone who has been sending papers out for over twenty years, I’m able to shrug those awful reviews off, send my work out again, and move on. Increasingly, however, what bothers me most about getting these reviews is imagining what it would be like to be a brand new scholar sending her or his work out to reviewers and receiving feedback like the above. It takes courage and trust to send our work out and when we receive harmful or hurtful feedback, the will and courage to send it out again diminishes considerably.

Our goal as reviewers should be—above all—to be helpful: helpful to the writer by giving him or her concrete strategies to make their work better and helpful to the profession by encouraging, nurturing, and mentoring our peers to publish top-notch work.

By being “helpful,” I want to underscore that I do not mean that reviewers can only say positive things and avoid anything that points out limitations of the work. Not pointing out, for example, that the literature review needs work or that a paper lacks focus might seem “nicer” but is not helpful either to the writer if she or he wants to continue to publish certain kinds of articles or to the profession in whose best interests it is for us to produce strong, rigorous, well-crafted scholarship. That said, we need to be cognizant of the ways in which we give feedback and the impact of that feedback.

In recent months, I’ve talked to colleagues about what makes a good peer review. Here are a few things we have come up with:
• Respond to the article that the writer submitted and respond to the piece in front of you. Do not try to get authors to rewrite their article into what you would have written, explore a different topic, or use a different methodology.
• Remember you are responding to a person who was as nervous, anxious, and vulnerable as you were when you sent out your first article. Don’t hide behind anonymity and blind reviews. Never say anything in a blind review that you wouldn’t say if your name were known or you were talking to this author in person.
• Peer reviewing is not only about evaluating, it is also about mentoring, nurturing and building a community of strong scholars.
• Think about the peer review process as a teachable moment. Give writers concrete, specific feedback they can use to make their articles better. If the article lacks focus, say something like, “Your article could be better focused around a central argument. On page four, you write _____. This strikes me as a solid summary of your piece, perhaps you could organize the article around this central idea.” No one ever wants to be told they need to do more work but giving someone concrete suggestions on how to make improvements makes revisions seem much more do-able.
• Understand that, increasingly, library research uses diverse methods and approaches. It is true that quantitative and qualitative research methods have traditionally been the dominant mode of scholarship in our field but there is a place in our scholarly literature for all kinds of methods. Don’t reject a piece simply because of its theoretical or methodological approach. Our profession will be stronger if we embrace the diversity of methods and approaches.
• Use criteria that are both appropriate to the journal and to the method the author employs. If the author submitted a quantitative paper, by all means, examine their statistical methods and their findings. If the author submitted a theoretical piece, consider their ideas fully and the logic of their argument.
• A peer reviewer is not a copy editor. If you notice the article is full of awkward sentences and typos, it is not your job to go through and fully edit and proofread the piece. Rather, you should note to the author and to the journal editor that there are a significant number of typos and/or awkward sentences and that these must be addressed.
• Have and maintain high standards but find ways to help authors reach those high standards.
• Finally: generosity is key. Always find something good to say about a piece. Be generous with your expertise and your understanding of what makes an article great. Help others achieve excellence.

As librarians become more active in scholarship, more and more of us will be taking on roles as peer reviewers. In this development, we have an opportunity to build a strong, supportive network of reviewers who can help us build a stronger body of published scholarship and a strong research culture.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Writing for Scholarly Publication: an Editor’s Perspective

by David Fox Librarian Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan

Not every manuscript submitted to a scholarly journal is a well-constructed, cogently written, polished work of prose. As Editor-in-Chief of Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research from 2011 to 2014, this writer evaluated more than 150 manuscripts of varying quality, and all of them required some editing or revision. This includes some of my own pieces for Partnership. I’m painfully aware that, as a writer, I’m just as inclined to slip-ups and omissions as anyone else. We sometimes seem to be blind to our own mistakes. That’s why we need editors. It takes many passes and many different eyeballs on a page to make it as clean as it should be.

When it comes to editing manuscripts, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but with a bit of effort you can usually produce a pretty serviceable pigskin wallet – and that’s often good enough for publication. Manuscripts from first-time authors, authors with a limited command of English, and authors not familiar with the conventions of academic writing need more than the average amount of editorial work, but I’m proud to say that at Partnership we rarely rejected a manuscript due to deficiencies in the writing alone. If the author had something interesting and important to say, we worked with that author to make the article publishable. Faulty methodology is another matter. Editors can fix bad writing, but we can’t fix bad research.

Below are some tips on writing for submission to a scholarly journal based on my experience reading manuscripts at Partnership. A lot of this advice may seem obvious to readers of this blog, but many of the papers I reviewed overlooked some of these points. Journals are typically juggling a number of manuscripts simultaneously under tight timelines. Anything that interrupts or slows down work on a manuscript may delay its publication. Attention to the following suggestions may expedite acceptance and processing of a submission.

What to write and where to submit?
• Pick an appropriate topic. To justify publication, a manuscript must have something new and interesting to say to the target readership of the journal. At Partnership in recent years, the most frequently cited articles have dealt with the adaptation of new technologies, particularly social media applications, to library functions; development of new services, including services to specific communities or user populations; new scholarship and publishing models; and new approaches to traditional library competencies.
• Pick an appropriate journal for your topic. What audience are you trying to reach? Is your topic of wide, general interest or narrow and specialized? Read the “purpose and scope” notes associated with potential journals to determine whether your submission will be a good fit for the readership.
• Where possible (and it’s almost always possible), choose an open access journal. Remember that every time you publish behind a paywall, a kitten dies!
• Work must be original, not previously published, and not simultaneously submitted to another publication. If you are considering submitting something to a scholarly journal, don’t pre-post it to an open access repository or conference Web site. If an identical or similar version of your paper can be located via a Google search, then it has essentially already been published and will probably be rejected.

Pay attention to publisher’s guidelines
Journal publishers tend to be fairly strict about adherence to style guidelines. This is in order to promote consistency of presentation from article to article.
• Pay attention to your publication’s instructions for authors re. manuscript length, spacing, etc.
• Follow your publication’s guidelines for bibliographic style and citation format. If the publisher’s instructions call for APA style and you submit your paper in MLA, Chicago, or some other format, it will likely be sent back to you for revision, and you will lose time.

Writing
• Write with the reader in mind. Avoid jargon, colloquialisms, and unexplained acronyms (unless you’re sure the audience will understand the reference).
• Adhere to the conventions for scholarly writing:

-Cite your sources. Every fact, idea, opinion, or quotation borrowed from another author needs to be documented (MLA 165). The editor cannot do this for you.
-Write clear, precise, simple, and straightforward prose.
-Use formal English (What is Academic English?). Avoid conversational language, e.g., “great”. “Fun” is not an adjective!
-Write in the third person. Avoid the use of personal pronouns: I, my, you, your. Refer to yourself as “the author”, “this researcher”, etc.
-Avoid using contractions: won’t, doesn’t.
-Exercise caution when expressing opinions and outcomes: use “may”, rather than “is” unless completely certain of your claims.
-Unlike creative writing, the passive voice is often appropriate in academic prose.

• Master basic punctuation and grammar. Poor grammar and punctuation, although fixable, conveys a negative impression to the editor and will require more time and effort by the copyeditor. In reading manuscripts at Partnership, it was astonishing to find that many librarian authors do not seem to have a good grasp of the rudiments of punctuation. In future blog posts I will discuss the most common punctuation mistakes and how to avoid them. It’s important for librarian authors to master these basic skills. Insistence on following standard punctuation rules is not just pedantry. Good punctuation helps to convey meaning, to avoid confusion, and allows a manuscript to be read more quickly and efficiently.
• Avoid word repetition. Use a thesaurus!

Prior to submitting your manuscript…
• While working towards a submission deadline, make sure to leave time for quality control.
• Have one or more trusted colleagues read your paper for clarity and comprehension before submission. This is especially advisable if English is not the author’s first language. If your closest colleagues don’t understand what you’re trying to say, then the average reader certainly won’t.
• Have another colleague with a good eye for detail proofread your work for spelling accuracy, typos, and word omissions. Sometimes it’s difficult to see one’s own mistakes.
• Leave time for revisions based on your colleagues’ suggestions.

Revision
• Assume that you will be asked to revise your manuscript. Editors rarely accept a manuscript without asking for changes, and peer-reviewers almost always suggest revisions. Don’t be discouraged by constructive criticism.
• Do take seriously the comments of peer-reviewers as peer-review usually results in substantial improvements to a manuscript; however, reviewers of the same paper can sometimes have conflicting opinions, and some advice they give may be off the mark (Soule 14). A good editor will evaluate the fairness of reviews and decide which comments to share with the author, or recommend which comments the author should particularly focus on. Remember that ultimately you are responsible for the integrity and coherence of your own work. Make those recommended changes that seem appropriate and sensible, and let the editor decide whether your revisions are acceptable.

A writer’s best friends are a thesaurus, style guide, and punctuation and grammar manuals. Keep them within easy reach on your desktop (either physical or virtual) and consult them frequently!

Works Cited
MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Writing. 3rd ed. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008. Print.

Soule, Daniel P. J. , Lucy Whiteley, and Shona McIntosh, eds. Writing for Scholarly Journals: Publishing in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Glasgow: eSharp, 2007. Web. 6 March 2015. http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_41223_en.pdf

What is Academic English? The Open University, 2015. Web. 6 March 2015.
http://www2.open.ac.uk/students/skillsforstudy/what-is-academic-english.php

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.