Your journey is not the same as mine and my journey is not yours, but if you meet me on a certain path, may we encourage each other.
Scrolling through Twitter on a Tuesday afternoon, I stumbled upon this lovely quote. What I particularly like about this quote is the type of collegiality it signifies, the spirit of cooperation and professionalism among individuals who work together towards shared goals, the essence of what, in my view, determines the quality of the peer review process.
When it comes peer review, it is often the peer reviewer, or the infamous Review 2, that first comes to mind, as if peer review were a one-man show. What people sometimes forget is that this is actually a collaborative process involving three parties - the editor, the reviewer and the author. In the past year of working as the chief editor of a student-led journal (CERJ), I had the opportunity to wear the hat of an editor, which nicely complements my experience as an author and a reviewer. Having worn all three hats, I came to recognise collegiality as the key to the success of the peer review process. Don’t get me wrong, the expertise and experience, or the so-called hard skills, of everyone involved matter a lot, but that’s not what I will focus on in this blogpost. What I like to draw your attention to is more on the soft skills side of things, on what I believe to make the whole peer review process more human and endurable, as opposed to a painful and sometimes hopeless process that many people dread about. If I have to single out one thing that matters the most in this aspect, I would say without hesitation the spirit of collegiality.
Collegiality between the reviewer and the author is about respect and collaborative spirit. More often than not, people see reviewer and author as taking adversarial positions. There is no shortage of rumours and anecdotes about reviewers being notorious for “giving authors a hard time”. And trust me I am having my fair share of that torment as well. But after I started editing the student journal, I experienced something very different. In contrast to the not uncommon power issues entangled in the peer review process of more competitive journals, for a student-led journal the sense of collegiality actually comes with the territory: Both authors and reviewers are part of the graduate community, on more or less equal footing. I find it particularly refreshing to read the feedback provided by reviewers who critique or question with a sense of humility in mind and with a sense of boundary that respects the author’s take on the paper as opposed to trying to reformulate the paper as the reviewer’s own. Collegiality also means treating peer review as an intellectual dialogue between colleagues with shared interests, values and common goals (e.g., to advance knowledge in the field). It means that it’s perfectly fine for the reviewer and the author to disagree with each other. It means that it’s not about proving who’s right or wrong or who knows more or less, but about using reason and evidence to convince each other to reach a consensus, or respectfully agree to disagree.
Collegiality between the editor and the reviewer is about professionalism. As the editor, it is such a headache to chase unresponsive reviewers after the deadline, only to receive a poor quality review put tougher in a rush or on response at all. If there is any secret to developing a lasting and positive relationship with a journal, returning a quality review a few days in advance of the deadline actually goes a long way and you will certainly earn the editors’ appreciation. Collegiality also means being honest and transparent with the editor. If a review cannot be delivered as expected, be it due to lack of time or expertise, notify the editor as soon as possible so that contingency plans can be implemented. I know early career researchers can feel insecure about turning down review requests (been there myself) but trust me it’s always better to turn down a request early on than dragging it till the last minute or to go AWOL completely. Being collegial doesn’t mean saying yes every time a request is sent. Rather, it means being responsive and responsible. If you are serious about a future in academia, then make sure your words count even if there is nothing legally stopping you from breaking a promise.
Last but not least, collegiality between the editor and the author means thoughtfulness and support. It is my personal belief that it is primarily the editor’s responsibility to redress the power imbalance between the author and the editor. The privilege and power placed on journal editors are tremendous and sometimes easily abused. Granted, editorial decisions are hard, there is no doubt about that (my sympathies are with all editors out there!). In fact, being an editor is an extremely taxing job, both mentally and physically, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone consider it if they want to lead a happy, trouble-free life...That said, it doesn’t mean editorial decisions have to be delivered in a manner that’s unsupportive. Collegiality would mean supporting authors even in the case of rejection, to make sure constructive feedback is delivered in a courteous and respectful manner. This way, even when people part their ways, they move on with something valuable from the process.
Here you go, the secret to the perfect peer review unveiled: collegiality upheld by all parties involved. The journey of peer review has its ups and downs and may not always end up with a happy ending for all. But for however brief or long the parties intersect along the way, may the spirit of collegiality make the ride more enjoyable and worthwhile.
The ‘publish or perish peril’ is a struggle that all early-career researchers and academics (ECRs henceforth) face. There is bountiful literature and advice on how ECRs should strategize their publishing efforts, deal with critical peer reviews, improve on their writing style or to seek journals that are more suitable to publish in. These pieces of advice often place the agency of publishing (and publishing prolifically) on ECRs. What I hope to contribute here is perhaps a perspective that examines how the motivations to publish can sometimes be met with external pressures and resistance beyond the control of ECRs.
This blog post will discuss three external factors influencing early career academics’ publication practices and some of the struggles that we face when publishing. This is based on my personal experiences and my earlier research interviewing academics working in applied linguistics and related fields in British universities.
In my research interviews with other ECRs, I realised that many do struggle with what I term as disciplinary positioning—how to position one’s research and oneself in relation to the discipline. Very often, in seeking employment, this question invariably comes up: Is this ECR enough of a linguist or historian or sociologist…etc? This depends to some extent on the kinds of publications that they had on their CV. One of my interviewees was Alf (pseudonym), an ECR who recounted his rejected job application because that particular department had perceived him as “not enough of a linguist” (Hah, 2020). In Alf’s case, he had published prolifically not just in linguistics but in other fields as well, which he attributed as a reason for being perceived as not having a sufficiently “well-defined research programme” to be recognised as suitable by that particular department.
Sometimes getting published also depended on institutional evaluation or research evaluation exercises. Researchers- sometimes senior ones- have reported having to publish in certain journals over others because they needed to have research output that falls under one REF panel over another. They have shared that they needed to alter their styles of writing, and of course the larger questions they write about in order to fit in with a journal. To some extent, peer reviewers and journal editors act as gatekeepers on what constitutes the kind of ‘disciplinary positioning’ that are suited for the journal. In my earlier research, I had interviewed an ECR, Jodie (pseudonym), who candidly shared her reasons for shifting to a new field because she found it easier to get published in “theoretically less guarded” fields (Hah, 2019). Jodie’s struggle was not unique and several other academics have shared common sentiments. I suppose this has to do with different fields and disciplines have different understandings of what constitute better data and what are more valid ways of working with data.
While it may sound like an excuse or poor self-discipline, the immediacy of teaching and dealing with students often take precedence over doing research and writing up publications. Furthermore, it is often the case that those hired to teach are remunerated only for teaching. Yet, research and publishing output remains the bastion of academic productivity, and this is reinforced by institutional appraisal and hiring mechanisms. That is, ECRs need to exhibit research productivity in visible forms such as publications, talks and funding successes in order to be seen as research-active and for better employment prospects. Thus, the stakes for publishing are invariably high for ECRs.
In his book about writing in the social sciences, Becker reminded readers that it is not a personal defect if one is unsuccessful in publishing (Becker, 2008). Amidst the pressures and anxieties to publish, I suppose this is apt reminder for all ECRs.
Becker, H. S. (2008). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article. University of Chicago Press.
Hah, S. (2019). Disciplinary positioning struggles: Perspectives from early career academics. Journal of Applied Linguistics & Professional Practice, 12(2), 144-165.
Hah, S. (2020). Valuation discourses and disciplinary positioning struggles of academic researchers—A case study of ‘maverick’ academics. Palgrave Communications, 6(1), 51. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-0427-2
I consider myself to be a quasi-academic in that I hold an academic position, but not a PhD or research role. I have done, and continue to do, research in school contexts but this research often sits outside the conventions of ‘academic research’ in terms of methodology. The first two times I was approached by an academic journal to review a submission I refused, as I felt that I wasn’t qualified as a reviewer. The third time I was approached I agreed, simply because I was very interested in the subject of the article and felt it could be highly relevant for teachers/educators.
I began my task with trepidation, wondering if I would have anything at all to say about the article. I quickly became caught up in the narrative of the case study, and completely forgot that I was meant to be reviewing it! On my first time through, I only paid attention to the story the author was telling – what she wanted to know, what she did, and how she felt about the answers she had found. I was reading as a practitioner, and from this perspective found the article very rewarding. I went back to the article a second time, feeling that I need to find something ‘wrong’ with it, in my role as reviewer. In this second (and third) review I paid more attention to descriptions and conclusions in particular, and did find that some of the conclusions were not fully substantiated by the data. I felt a moment of pride, as I became a ‘real’ academic; reading other’s work to critique. This was quickly followed by a moment of sadness, thinking of the author and how committed to her work she obviously was, which led to these over-ambitious conclusions. In my fourth and final read through, I was looking specifically for things to highlight that I thought were very good about the research/article, to balance out the criticism of her methodology and conclusions. In this process, I can full circle, back to my quasi-academic self – reading for what I could get out of it, rather than to critique.
When the editor let me know that the article had been accepted subject to major revisions I was quite surprised, as I had only found what I considered to be minor issues. I had the opportunity to read the first reviewer’s comments. At first I thought that they were quite harsh, but I went back to the paper to read the areas critiqued (methodology and conclusions) and I could actually see the issues the reviewer was referring to, even though I hadn’t noticed them myself. From a professional development perspective, this was really valuable for me, as it raised my awareness of areas of research that I perhaps was not paying enough attention to in my readings. Partly I attribute this to my lack of confidence in my research credentials – I’m more likely to believe a researcher than to question them, as I feel they have more authority and knowledge.
Overall, it was a good learning experience, but not one I would want to repeat often! It takes a lot of time and attention to do a thorough job, and even when I gave that time and attention I still felt my review was lacking. On the other hand, I felt that the comments and suggestions I added were probably of as much value for the author, even though they were less focused on the precision of the research and more on the context and applications. In an ideal world, I think that the balance across two reviewers is good if they aren’t reading through the same lens.
1.Trust yourself – your perspective on the article is worthwhile, even if you don’t approach it in the same way as a more experienced academic/reviewer.
2.Think about the reader perspective – is this of value to non-traditional academic audiences (i.e. teachers) and if yes, is it written in ways that are accessible. A more experienced reviewer may not consider this aspect.
3.Read the other reviewer’s comments, as a professional development exercise. They may have noticed things you did not (i.e. methodological issues or statistics) but you can learn for next time.
Eowyn Crisfield is a Canadian-educated specialist in languages across the curriculum, including EAL, home languages, bilingual and immersion education, super-diverse schools and translanguaging. Her focus is on equal access to learning and language development for all students, and on appropriate and effective professional development for teachers working with language learners. She is author of the recent book ‘Bilingual Families: A practical language planning guide (2021) and co-author of “Linguistic and Cultural Innovation in Schools: The Languages Challenge” (2018 with Jane Spiro). She is also a Senior Lecturer in English Language and TESOL at Oxford Brookes University.
“Zwischen Reiz und Reaktion liegt ein Raum. In diesem Raum haben wir die Freiheit und die Macht unsere Reaktion zu wählen. In unserer Reaktion liegen unser Wachstum und unsere Freiheit.”
“There is a space between stimulus and reaction. In this space we have the freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Viktor Emil Frankl
Those of us who have already written a paper, maybe even submitted it to a journal, know the feeling: the last word is written, the submission button is clicked, there is nothing to do but wait and revel in the feeling of pride to have finished it. And, of course, in the nervousness and anticipation of what your reviewers are going to say about it. With this high of emotions, what happens, when we actually get our reviews and they are less than stellar? We all know about the stereotype of the evil Reviewer 2, gatekeeper extraordinaire. But how do we deal with actually encountering them?
Well – as always, the answer is not straightforward. I think, in the end, everyone needs to deal with it in their own way, but let me tell you what I do in this case. Don’t get me wrong: most reviews I got so far were actually really helpful; they pointed out flaws I never considered, provided me with new insights on my topic, and definitely helped me improve my paper even further. But there were also times when I just felt completely frustrated after reading my reviews – especially when I felt that the person reviewing my paper was simply expressing biased opinions (rather than objective critique), or that they had somehow misunderstood the purpose of my paper (or at least parts of it). In those moments, I would read the comments and find them completely useless, unhelpful, and not at all justified; in short – I would be angry. Here I was, having spent hours upon hours readying my manuscript for publication, and this other person couldn’t even bother reading the paper properly? Couldn’t bother to put their personal feelings on the matter I was discussing aside?
I started dealing with those feelings the way I always do when I am frustrated or angry: I get up from my desk and make some tea. I also tend to send voice-recorded rants on the topic to a friend (and fellow linguistics PhD student). And sometimes, I also just let it rest, sleep on it, and take care of it another day when I feel more up to it.
Because one thing is certain: My work is personal. My work is emotional. Sure, science communication needs to be professional, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that doing research is not an emotional process! I really think that this is one of the most important things to understand: it is normal to feel frustrated. It is normal to feel angry. It is normal to be emotional about your work that you have put a ton of time and sweat into. But – and this is just as important to realise – this is the moment in which “we have the freedom and power to choose our response” (to quote Frankl). Because responding to the reviews, we must.
I usually do the following: After having tea (or having slept on it), I make a list of all the individual points that the reviewer made. Then I go through them, one by one, and try to discern whether this one point actually makes sense and can help me improve my paper, or whether it is really a useless comment (like my feelings tell me). The devil, as always, is in the detail: sometimes only parts of a comment are unhelpful, while the rest of it actually makes sense. Untangling these individual points is not easy, so take your time. In the end, you need to discern what you should actually address and change in your paper, and what you can ignore. I also write down my immediate thoughts on each point – my next steps in addressing the comment or even my thoughts on it not making any sense. At this point, I don’t really have to worry about the way it reads, because no one except me will ever get to see that first draft of my response. This process really helps, because there have been times when I had initially judged some comments to be unfair that later made sense to me when I got some emotional distance.
Another step in this process is of course to have another look at your manuscript. Sometimes, I was sure the point I wanted to make was obvious (and the reviewer just hadn’t read the paper carefully before responding), when in fact I later realised that someone who isn’t reading the paper with all my prior knowledge was never explicitly advised on the point I wanted to get across. In such moments, I think it is important to remind yourself that you are not infallible, and that the reviewers most likely are also just trying to help you and support you in order to make your paper even better.
There are, of course, points that are still pointless for your paper – just as you are, the reviewers are also just people who might make mistakes or bring their own bias into the communication. In such cases, you can of course formulate a response that indicates that this comment is not really relevant for your paper – but be careful: you need to support this response with facts that illustrate why the reviewer’s comments are not justified. Of course, these responses should be formulated respectfully and professionally. In order to make sure that my tone isn’t too disrespectful, I always have someone else read over them before sending them out.
So, in summary, my advice would be this: Be emotional about reviewer feedback. It is completely normal. But don’t let those emotions blind you. Instead, take a step back and re-evaluate your reaction at a later point. Talk to people you trust about it. And then: choose your response.
As an early career researcher (ECR), I realised that I need to contribute to my field of research and to share my research findings through involving in academic activities such as presenting at conferences, writing blog posts and more importantly, and most difficult, publishing my work at academic journals. Another way that I have found to be equally important to develop my research knowledge and skills, although it is less famous and more intangible, is to peer-review. Benefits of peer-reviewing are diverse; in addition to the recognition that one may get out of it, there is a wide range of benefits that can develop you as a researcher.
First review experience and the imposter syndrome
After finishing my master’s degree in educational leadership and management, I was trying to publish a paper, that builds on my dissertation, with a prestigious journal in this field of research. To my surprise, the editor of the journal invited me to review a paper; an invitation that I had never expected earlier. I accepted that invitation reluctantly, I felt that it was a huge responsibility. At that time, I experienced the imposter syndrome: the feeling that I have got this opportunity out of luck rather than merit while doubting my ability to fulfil such an academic role. This feeling sounds reasonable considering my limited research experience, compared to my extensive professional experience as a classroom teacher, head of Maths department and teacher trainer. To stay honest, I experience this feeling every time I get a review invitation since then, no matter how confident with the paper’s topic I might be. This feeling as I will clarify later acts positively with me.
Intangible benefits of peer-reviewing
The more I become involved in reviewing papers, the more benefits I believe I get out of this academic endeavour. These benefits include the opportunity to read and critique latest research in my field of study, which means that I not only become up to date with research developments but also, I will be knowledgeable of gaps in my field of research. The latter is particularly a great privilege that can inform my future research agenda. I made use of this privilege in publishing one of my recent papers. This, to make the advice more comprehensive, should be accompanied by the expert writer practice of designing your paper with the journal and a specific type of manuscript in mind, both combine to increase your chance to publish.
In addition, when making a critique, one broadens own understanding of what good papers should look like, which means a higher ability to organize my own writing and argument. This also I believe helps to appreciate reviewers’ feedback on my manuscripts and to attend to their recommendations in an active way. My own view of reviewers’ feedback has altered due to my peer-review practice, I realized that they are not there to undermine me, they rather try to help me to reach the potential of my research and to assure high quality standards of publication. Back to the imposter syndrome, peer-reviewing called me to read and dig deeper in the literature related to the topics of the papers I review. This is necessary to make sure that I am in a position to fairly judge the quality of them and also to seek support when in doubt (i.e. with language). All these opportunities I believe support my efforts to fulfil the role of an educator-researcher and become an effective member of academia.
Reviewing duties to always bear in mind
One of the earliest and most important lessons I have learned about peer-review is to adhere to ethical guidelines. My feedback is most importantly constructive, even when I recommend rejecting a paper, I try my best to provide recommendations on how to develop it. Pay it forward, it is a cycle. Ethical duties include that I should not accept a paper that I feel biased for or against it for any reason (conflict of interest). Also, I should not accept a paper that is outside my area of research or breach the paper’s confidentiality (i.e. to share its findings). It is my role to see the topic from the authors’ perspective not from my own, I should not try to turn their paper into mine. It is necessary to ensure that my feedback is constructive and aims only to improve the quality of the manuscript and importantly not to raise the bar in subsequent rounds of review.
Top tips for early career researchers
As an ECR, your involvement in peer-reviewing can facilitate achieving your academic targets; most of all to get your work published. Ethics are central to the review process; always adhere to the publisher’s ethical guidelines and never raise the bar as your role is to ensure a quality research output not to make the process complex. Ask for help when in doubt; make your feedback as constructive as it could be, it is a cycle. Your review motto should be “review others as you want to be reviewed yourself; this motto says more than it might appear! And finally, do not allow the imposter syndrome experience to put you off, make it rather to act as an active source that informs your academic PD agenda.
Submitting the first manuscript: a PhD candidate’s reflections on the critical role of mentorship in navigating peer review
While for both established and novice members of academic discourse communities, writing and submitting a manuscript for scholarly publication ‘includes a mixed bag of merits, motivations, risk and pressures’ (Habibie and Hyland, 2019: 1), for doctoral students working on their first manuscript, it is an especially daunting prospect. Contributing to stressful nature of writing and submitting a manuscript are not only that many, if not most PhD students, lack familiarity with the process of publishing and that rejection rates can be as high as 93% for some academic journals (Hyland, 2012: 58) but that PhD students are pressed for time and not always well supported in efforts toward publishing (Lei, 2019; Habibie, 2016). There are lower stakes alternative modes of publication for PhD students and early career researchers, as Shehaden (2021) points out, but it is still the research article that plays such a significant role in the completion of doctoral studies, future hiring and promotion.
Given the high stakes nature of publishing in a scholarly journal, it is unfortunate that publishing and peer review processes are not always made explicit to PhD students, who may be left to navigate these processes on their own or with little support. Like much writing in the academy, writing for publication among PhD students can seem like an 'institutional practice of mystery’ (Lillis, 2001). One important difference in writing as a PhD student in contrast to writing as an undergraduate, though, is the close mentorship provided to PhD students including through regular feedback received on the thesis by their supervisors. When transferred to publishing, this mentorship and regular feedback provide tremendous opportunities for PhD students to decode and learn to navigate the processes of submitting a manuscript, responding to peer review and publishing a scholarly journal article. Below, I reflect on my own recent experience with submitting a manuscript, navigating peer review and successfully coauthoring a journal article for publication with my thesis supervisor as a second-year PhD student all of which was made possible through mentorship from my supervisor.
Reflections on submitting a manuscript
After reading a recently published article in a journal that I often go back to, I met with my supervisor to discuss what I thought was a great opportunity to respond to the article. I was thrilled when she agreed to do this and seemed equally excited about doing so. She outlined the first steps to be taken: we would develop a plan, divide up tasks, and begin to plan and draft before reading each other’s contributions and providing feedback to each other, similar to the process described by Darvin and Norton (2019) in co-authoring as supervisor and supervisee. We would also use the authors’ instructions and guidelines, unique to the journal, to format the manuscript before submitting. These initial steps in the submission process were clear to me and as I would have expected; however, what came next was not at all.
The need for mentorship in navigating peer review
Looking back, I am not quite sure I remember what I expected to happen next. I suppose I just thought the manuscript would be accepted or rejected and with either of these results a few comments from reviewers would be included. ‘Revise and resubmit’ was not yet in my lexicon. As you can probably guess, we were given the opportunity to revise and resubmit, which requires not only that you read through reviewers’ comments, which may conflict, but also that you include a table that shows changes made in response to each reviewer’s comments and recommendations for changes in addition to revising the manuscript. Without my supervisor, I would have been completely lost in understanding the critical steps and subsequent genres involved in doing this.
Hyland (2012) highlights that it may be helpful for novice researchers to see their submitted manuscript as part of a genre set, including journal aims and instructions for authors as well as referees’ reports and the editor’s comments, rather than as a stand-alone text. This is certainly helpful, but because the components of the genre set surrounding the manuscript are occluded, without a mentor’s support, these texts, the practices surrounding them, and the conventions for writing them are unknowable to novice researchers. Thankfully for me, my supervisor explained each step of this process (from reading and understanding reviewers’ comments, to deciding what actions to take, discussing possible changes in response to reviewers’ comments, drafting changes in the manuscript, and responding to each of the reviewers’ comments), and the purpose and expectation of each, fully aware of, and making explicit to me, the role of co-authoring and navigating peer review as a process of apprenticeship (Ferris, 2019). While I still have a significant amount to learn regarding writing for a scholarly journal, I am at least now aware of the stages and expectations of the publishing process, and this makes the next stage in my publishing apprenticeship, single authorship, much less unnerving.
Conclusions, Lessons Learned and a Few Tips
Submitting a manuscript to a scholarly journal and navigating the peer review process as a PhD candidate is difficult and nerve-wracking, but it is made possible through the mentorship of more experienced scholars with whom PhD students likely have the closest contact – their thesis supervisors. Co-publishing a journal article with my own supervisor has offered me growing awareness of, access to, and practice in producing pieces in a genre set I did not know existed prior to this experience. For those of you who may just be getting started thinking of working on a publication, or are in the midst of doing so, here are a few lessons learned and tips from my recent experience in coauthoring a journal article and navigating the peer review process:
Darvin, R. and Norton, B. (2019) ‘Collaborative writing, academic socialization, and the negotiation of identity.’ In Habibie and Hyland (Eds) Novice Writers and Scholarly Publication Authors, Mentors, Gatekeepers (pp. 195-213 ). London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Ferris, D. (2019) ‘Guiding junior scholars into and through the publication process.’ In Habibie and Hyland (Eds) Novice Writers and Scholarly Publication Authors, Mentors, Gatekeepers (pp. 215-232). London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Habibie, P. and Hyland, K. (2019) ‘Introduction: The Risks and Rewards of Scholarly Publishing.’ In Habibie and Hyland (Eds) Novice Writers and Scholarly Publication Authors, Mentors, Gatekeepers (pp. 1-10). London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Habibie, P. (2016) ‘Writing for Scholarly Publication in Canadian Higher Education Context: a
Case Study’. In Badenhorst, C.M. & Geurin, C. (Eds.). Research Literacies and Writing
Pedagogies for Masters and Doctoral Writers (pp. 51-67). Leiden: Brill Publishing.
Hyland, K. (2012). ‘Welcome to the machine: Thoughts on writing for scholarly publication.’ Journal of Second Language Teaching and Research, 1 (1), 58-68.
Lei, J. (2019) ‘Publishing during doctoral candidature from an activity theory perspective: The case of four Chinese nursing doctoral students.’ TESOL Quarterly, 53 (3), 655-685.
Lillis, T. (2001) Student writing: Access, Regulation, Desire. London: Routledge.
Shehaden, A. (2021) ‘Alternative modes of publication for novice researchers.’ TESOL Journal, 00, 1-5.
Angela is a second-year PhD Candidate in the School of Education, Communication and Society at King’s College London. Her research interests include English for Academic Purposes, academic literacy development, English medium instruction, and academic discourse in higher education.