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.