How To Write A Helpful, Honest Review Of Another Scholar’s Work.
Academic rigour in publishing is maintained by the peer reviewing system. It is assumed that once you are established in your career and that you have published in a field that you might be a useful peer reviewer. But no one ever teaches you how to do this and so, consequently, the quality and reviewers’ comments varies tremendously.
Here are some pitfalls that should be avoided when peer reviewing.
- Late delivery: reviewers work for nothing and so are notorious for putting off writing their reports while they turn their attention to more important work, thus keeping author and publisher waiting. If you know you can’t submit a review in a timely fashion say so, and decline the invitation this time.
- Length: If you have been asked to review a book proposal and cannot even muster 100 words on the topic, then perhaps you are the wrong person to the review the project! But equally, avoid ‘overkill’.
- Level of detail: your role is not to point out the minutiae of grammar errors and typos. Leave that to copyeditors who will see the work at a later stage. Your purpose is to discuss the overall worthiness of a project.
- Keep your comments appropriate: remember that the author might be venturing into press for the first time. Do not tear their ideas to shreds for the sake of showing how knowledgeable you are.
The most common problem with peer reviewers is that their comments do not respond directly to the work that has been presented to them. In other words, they write a review saying that the essay/proposal is inadequate in essence because they would have chosen to present it in a different way. Of course if there are serious intellectual flaws then reviewers must say so, but they must also acknowledge that a scholar with a different approach or different ideas must be taken seriously on his or her own merit.
Writing a good review:
The best way to write a good review is to avoid the problems listed above. Here are some points to consider:
- Think big picture and not little niggles.
- Keep your criticism constructive. You may be very thick skinned, but everyone is not. If there are problems with the article or proposal, comment on how it might be improved. Do not make remarks personal or needlessly cruel.
- The publisher for whom you are reviewing will probably give you a list of trigger questions to consider, but if they have not done so, here are some of the most common ones:
What does this work contribute to scholarship? Is its approach or conclusion unique or innovative? Is its conclusion valid based on evidence presented? Is the research well evidenced through footnote and bibliographical referencing? Is the piece well-written in a style appropriate to the audience of the book or journal?
How to be invited to be a peer reviewer:
This is a very good skill with which to enhance your CV so take any opportunities offered to you (bearing in mind the point above about timeliness of delivery).
Networking at conferences or on social media is a great way to make yourself available for these sorts of roles. Also contact publishers of books in your field, and editors of key journals offering yourself as a reviewer. Clearly explain the areas of your own research interests and outline a list of topic areas on which you’d be prepared to review.