The work of an academic researcher is to discover, inform and persuade – the process of new knowledge creation and dissemination. The modalities may vary significantly from discipline to discipline among institutions and individuals. In essence, the scientific method requires natural and professional sceptics to test the claims of their colleagues or peers. Quality, trust and originality need to be assured.
Nothing shines a brighter light on academia’s collegial and collective charms as does the peer review process in publishing, where competent researchers in the same field evaluate the output of their colleagues and provide invaluable feedback.
In this blog, we are going to look at 10 things every academic should know about the peer review process:
1. Peer Review is a Critical Gateway
There is no escaping the process. Peer review is how academic researchers validate authenticity and check for quality work. You may find several audiences willing to entertain your output without review, but the gold standard is to pass peer review.
2. Scope your Journals
The submission process starts with a desk review to decide whether peer review is justified. This early checkpoint tests whether your manuscript falls within the journal’s scope, whether your research topic has been clearly formulated, and whether your research methods meet the standards. Suffice to say that approaching journals that do not form part of your regular reading radically increases the chance of missing the mark in joining the conversation. Think of it as sending your grandmother’s favourite Bratwurst recipe to a vegan cookbook editor!
3. Treat Peers with Respect
Expect harsh criticism. Some reviewers will not pull their punches and your professional ego may take a bit of a bruising. But, appreciate that taking them on in a confrontational manner will serve no purpose. Give each of their comments due consideration and, if you have to disagree, use evidence-based arguments, the essence of critical thinking and academic discourse. You will most likely be doing a lot of re-writing.
4. Play your Part
Peer review is a voluntary collaboration between researchers who share the same interests. It is all give and take, so make a point of stepping to the plate when next you see an invitation to referee. It is an important part of your own professional development and it may also help you cement relationships with influential editorial board members. Take each colleague’s work as seriously as you would expect them to take your work.
5. Time Flies
Your manuscript will be reviewed by capable peers with no less a pressing pile of work on their desks than yours. Expect the process to take much longer than expected and save yourself the frustration. Resist the urge to call the editor-in-chief to ask for quick feedback. Alternative models of review are being investigated and developed, yet they all face the same problem – the lack of large numbers of expert reviewers with plenty of free time.
6. Understand the Different Reviews
Some journals use single-blind review, where your name as author will be known to the reviewer while the reviewer’s identity remains undisclosed.
Double-blind reviews mask the identities of all parties as a way to avoid any external factors influencing the assessment of the submission. You could find that your empirical research and data might be independently reviewed for its accuracy of the soundness of your methodology. If your research includes living subjects, whether human or animals, expect a potential review of ethical research practices.
7. Open Peer Review
As the Internet and Open Access have widened and democratised the space for academic discourse, there is a growing set of voices calling for the identities of referees to be disclosed at all times. Reality is that many do this already, inviting direct discussion with young authors in an attempt to be of help.
In weighing the pros and cons, proponents of the Open Peer Review process raise the accountability argument; i.e., that referees will be forced to pay more attention to manuscripts and write better reviews when publicly known. It may also be a surefire way of weeding out any conflicts of interest. As information in cyberspace becomes more fluid, discussion forums and social media discourse are creating “referees of the referees”. Probably never a bad trend?
8. Paper Aerobics
Shuffling a lot of paper fast and furiously has been called “paper aerobics” in jest. It is reminiscent of the hectic wellness craze of the 1970s, popularised by Jane Fonda and others.
Get ready and get organised, because once you start dissecting your manuscript into several different journal submissions, the paper flow may be daunting.
- Firstly, ethical publishing dictates that the same paper will not be submitted to different journals simultaneously. Checklist item: are your different submissions truly unique in every sense?
- Secondly, you may consider developing an ordered list of targeted journals. If your paper does not pass desk review, you could move to the next journal on your list.
- Thirdly, assuming you pass desk review and peer referees suggest a radical rewrite and resubmit, which elements of your research are affected? And do you have serious disagreement or was it meaningful enough to revisit your entire project?
You get the idea? The process of submission will open a Pandora’s Box of iterative information adaptation and management. Best to anticipate this, develop the folder and inbox architecture that will help you keep track, and consistently consider comments in terms of your research and their impact on the logistics of your publishing ambitions.
9. Publisher Partners Can Help
It can be a bit overwhelming, trying to evaluate your best options. This is where a publishing partner effectively doubles as a career coach. Speaking to the Editors at Verlag Barbara Budrich, they explain that there is no cookie-cutter set of answers. Authors may be in a hurry to receive feedback and opt for Open Access review. Or some hybrid options. Others choose to remain nostalgically tied to the look and feel of a hard-cover book in print or proudly display their free copies of their journal articles that survived the double-blind peer review process. Let the publishing professionals advise you.
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10. It’s Not a Perfect Process
Proponents of the Open Peer Review process often point out that there are flaws with the traditional peer process. Given the constraints with time and the limited number of expert referees, it stands to reason that mistakes are made; that data is not always thoroughly reviewed; and that personal biases towards particular research agendas could affect the outcome. Despite the ball of string that the open peer process may invite, there is some merit to the argument that inviting more reviewers may help detect error better and enrich the academic discourse.
Some things cannot be undone. Rather take your time when considering which path to take with your manuscript. Have an informed discussion with a seasoned editor who may have seen both the triumphs and the mistakes of young researchers with varying degrees of patience. As the old saying goes: “Measure twice, cut once”.
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