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Writing with the limitations of peer review in mind using “passionate writing”

Creado por Gashaw Kebede | 18 de Junio de 2024  | Entrenamiento para escritura científica Peer review

Introduction

Journal peer review contributes to the process of knowledge production by filtering for quality and relevance, constructively improving, and approving newly created knowledge. However, the peer review process is imperfect, to say the least, and has been a focus of continued debates, criticisms, and innovations to make it more fit for purpose. Despite the expectations that the ideal peer review is objective and merit based, for some it is subjective and biased, contributing to a higher rate of rejection of their manuscripts, particularly by highly reputable journals. And yet, owing to its vital contributions and absence of better alternative mechanisms to complete the process of knowledge production, journal peer review is going to stay with us.

Imperfections in peer review arise primarily from (i) individual failures on the part of the key players implementing it, namely editors, reviewers, and authors; and (ii) the inherent features of the peer review system that are prone to human infallibility and power dynamics. The individual shortcomings of the key players include reviewer incompetence; editor/reviewer personal biases against specific author categories, genders, geographic areas, institutions, and languages; editor/reviewer time constraints; and reviewer subjectivity and assessment inconsistency. The inherent limitations of the peer review system, on the other hand, primarily revolve around the fact that peer review is performed by humans (peers), who may:

  1. be influenced and often bounded (consciously and unconsciously) in their peer reviews by the paradigms and methodologies of their disciplines as well as their own personal thinking style and experiences, biasing them against anything other than theirs;
  2. appreciate and be concerned more with research problems, solutions, and innovations that are pertinent to their own context and stages of professional and social development (i.e., intraversion, which is a process whereby scholars are inwardly focused and suspicious of knowledge from sources external to their own country); and
  3. be time-pressed and often overwhelmed by personal and peer review assignments, and thus often intolerant of additional burden in the peer review process, such as trying to understand manuscripts that are poorly organized or written in poor (non-native) English.

While the individual failures require diverse interventions and self-corrections, the inherent limitations of the peer review system can largely be addressed by authors’ strategic writing approaches that are mindful of the inherent limitations. Because of the inherent limitations of the peer review process, some authors—like those from the Global South and early career researchers—are marginalized more than others. Based on my years of experience in scholarly communication, I propose that authors, especially those who are highly likely to be impacted by the system's inherent limitations, should emphasize two helpful and complementary writing habits: "passionate writing" and "professional writing", as described below.A fountain pen nib is visible, writing in black ink on black-lined white paper

 

Passionate writing

The main writing habit proposed here is passionate writing. Passionate writing can refer to bringing out exceptionally loud aspects of one’s manuscript that could easily be missed or resisted by editors and reviewers. This entails taking extra effort to deliberately, boldly and confidently convey the importance of one’s research, the significance of the research problem, and the potential impacts of results of the research that reviewers from other contexts or backgrounds could easily miss or undermine during peer reviews. Despite the “objectivity” mantra in science writing, passionate writing has a strong potential to help get the appreciation and understanding of reviewers and editors. With passionate writing of relevant components of a manuscript, authors can overcome the potential biases of editors and reviewers towards problems and opportunities that are relevant only to their context. Passionate writing also makes it easier to overcome reviewers who are biased against works done using paradigms and methodologies as well as findings that they are not familiar with. Passionate writing, however, does not mean using emotional words or trying to get buy-in by appealing to the emotions of readers.

To create a passionately written manuscript,

  • Write concisely and authoritatively what has convinced you of the importance and potential impact of your study, assuming that the readers of the manuscript may have little or no clues about them.
  • Emphasize the context that lends importance to the problem and the solutions of your research, pinpointing the unique features of your research beneficiaries, setting and so on. 
  • Explain expertly how the problems and interventions proposed in the study are crucial for your population or region, using facts and visuals as much as possible. For instance, present the percentage of the population affected by the research problem or that could benefit from the proposed interventions.
  • Use descriptive language that could allow you to re-create in the minds of your readers the circumstances that prompted your research and your expectations of the potential impact of the solutions in addressing the problems.
  • Throughout, show a thorough understanding of the importance of the problem, the potential significance of the solutions, and the research methodology.

Passionate writing also applies to writings with innovative methodologies and breakthrough findings because reviewers with biases towards their own paradigms, methodologies, or research problems tend to reject novel research approaches and findings. In such a case, make sure to argue clearly and strongly why your approach, methodology, and problem formulations are sound and scientific in order to make the study’s findings valid, useful, and contribute to the universe of knowledge and solutions.

 

Professional writing

Passionate writing needs to be accompanied by professional writing. Professional writing primarily means ensuring that the words and phrases used in the manuscript are what the target scholarly community (including editors and reviewers) uses and understands in sharing and communicating their subject matter, object of study, problems, and solutions (i.e., disciplinary language). Professional writing also means writing according to the writing traditions of one’s discipline, as expressed in journal guidelines and style guide manuals frequented by the members of the discipline.

Intentional and careful use of one’s disciplinary language helps exploit the bias and better understanding Curved white library bookshelves, with many books and papers on them. 9 shelves are visiblethat editors and reviewers have of their scientific communities and disciplines. It also helps with reviewers who are intolerant of authors who do not seem to know enough about their subject matter, as reflected in the expressions and terminologies they use. Professionally written manuscripts are also good ways to keep eager editors and reviewers pressed with time. A well-written manuscript is easier and faster to go through, creating conditions for the reviewers to give a thorough review and return their reviews faster.

To write professionally, prioritize learning disciplinary terminologies and expressions from the moment you join your discipline. Pay attention to the expressions and terminologies used in the papers by prominent authors in the journals in your area. Recognize and become proficient in the languages and norms followed in your discipline while presenting the various sections of a scholarly manuscript. For instance, the language employed in a study’s findings section is different from other portions of a scholarly manuscript. It is also useful to study style guide manuals that are in use in your discipline. These guides offer authors ideas regarding how to approach each part of a scholarly manuscript, such as the narrative, tables, figures, and so on.

For successful professional writing, make sure also that your titles and abstracts contain the primary focus of your manuscript in succinct and clear ways. This will help win over and sustain the interests of time-pressed editors and reviewers. It is also an effective method for neutralizing editors and reviewers who struggle with bias against authors from specific geographic areas, institutions, and so on. A well-written introduction section is another early part of the manuscript to survive biased editors and reviewers. Provide supporting evidence for all your significant claims in the manuscript as much as possible, including claims based on your own research and from the literature. Use language editing tools to “refine and fine-tune sentences and to study sentence structuring,” avoiding the use of tortured phrases (i.e., unexpected, weird phrases suggested by the language editing tools in lieu of established ones).

 

Conclusion

One of the main takeaways from this blog post should be that researchers who are disadvantaged by the inherent limitations of the journal peer review system ought to employ as many inventive writing techniques as they can to make sure that these constraints do not prevent their work from being fairly legitimized and disseminated. It is, therefore, in the authors' best interest to write in a way that considers the inherent limits of peer review if they hope to have their work contribute to the world of knowledge. It consequently falls on authors to develop the habit of peer review-aware writing from the early stages of their careers as researchers. To build the required capacity and habits, authors must undertake regular writing training and deliberately practice writing passionately and professionally, including through studying and emulating model papers in their disciplines.

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Author: Gashaw Kebede (PhD) is an independent scholar and consultant in knowledge management. He has more than 25 years of work experience in different specializations and capacities, including in scientific and scholarly communications. Until the end of 2021, he taught and conducted research at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.

 

First image: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Second image: Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

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