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Peer review: What to remember when reading reviewers’ critiques

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By AuthorAID Team | Dec. 11, 2017  |

In this blog post, Dr Amber Murrey discusses how to respond to peer review, and why authors shouldn’t focus exclusively on reviewers’ critiques.

During a discussion at a five-day academic workshop on decolonizing academic publications, Dr Tesfaye Gebeyehu guided the workshop participants through the processes of engaging with, responding to, and (sometimes) recovering from reviewer comments.

As part of demystifying the peer review process, Dr Gebeyehu circulated examples of reviewer comments for the participants to consider. While each journal stresses particular points of emphasis (through confidential correspondence with reviewers), Dr Gebeyehu shared a number of reviewers’ responses to a series of questions.

One reviewer, for example, wrote the following for the article’s author:

  • “In addition to being general and vague, the research interest seems less relevant to practical context.”
  • “Assuming that the researcher applied the design and procedure to study [word removed to protect anonymity], it would even make it [an] exaggeration (i.e., unscientific) to define the phenomena as ‘[word omitted].’”
  • “Even though the researcher completely relied on literature survey as an approach to investigate the research interest, most of the research variables have been presented in terms of their basic definitions.”

I share these comments because they illustrate a direct and unambiguous critique of foundational aspects of the article under consideration. Dismissive terms like “general”, “vague”, “exaggerated (unscientific)” and “basic” likely triggered an immediate emotional reaction in the author, including shame, anger, sadness or a sense of incompetence. Words like these are often unhelpful as they reinforce the message that the author’s intelligence is somehow counterfeit. This is particularly unhelpful for academics who are marginalized within society and/or academia.

But the emotional side of peer review – and of academia itself – is often not spoken about, and is even erased through our professional performances as academics.

Against this backdrop, Dr Gebeyehu – editor-in-chief of the Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences and Language Studies – suggested the “kiss-kick-kiss” approach for peer review. With this approach, reviewers do not focus predominantly on critiques. Rather, critique (the “kick”) is sandwiched between well-meaning and tangible comments on the strength of the article (the “kisses”). This makes the criticism more palatable. This approach retains an awareness of the human behind the article. Also, it does not openly deflate the energy of the author nor discourage them from the energy-intensive task of revisions and re-writes.

Recognize the negativity bias

Psychologists and behavioral scientists have identified the so-called “negativity bias” tendency in human cognition – namely, that as humans we fixate on the negative (like criticisms in peer reviews!). This is a habit cultivated from an early age, where a warning or admonishment (e.g. “stay away from the fire”) remains with us and moves us more than praise (e.g. “well done, you ate all of your vegetables”).

In academia, this is reflected in authors’ increased likelihood to focus on “these ideas are general and vague” rather than “this article has potential for innovation”.

This reminder is important for authors as they process their own reviewers’ comments. Before you open the comments, it can be helpful to remember that you are predisposed to focus on the negative comments. These are the ones that are likely to stay with you for the next few days. Do not let these comments consume you. Do not let these comments distract you from your important work, including revisions.

Keep your work in perspective

Remember, too, reviewers are likely to be over-worked. Your reviewers are most likely preoccupied with a stack of student assignments to evaluate, lectures to refine, manuscripts to write and finalize, committee decisions to review/make, candidates to appraise, meetings to hold, blogs to contribute to, field trips to conduct, assessments to perform, public lectures to deliver, and so on. Reviewing your article is probably one afternoon’s task among many others – and they probably do not have the same long-term perspective of the value of your article as you do.

It is possible that your article requires considerable edits prior to its publication – but remember that most articles do! The articles that you read in peer-reviewed journals have already been subjected to revisions and rewrites. If the editor invites you to revise and resubmit, then do so.

Dr Amber Murrey teaches courses on neoliberalism, rapid social change, resistance and environmental justice at The American University in Cairo, Egypt. Her work has been published in the pages of Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, Political Geography, The Postcolonialist, Journal of Black Studies, Human Geography and Capital & Class. Amber is an expert facilitator for AuthorAID’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Academic Research Writing. 

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