Peer Review, and How to Survive It

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If you are an early career lecturer you may not have been prepared for the prominence given to peer review in the modern UK university. Of course, your experience as a postgraduate student will have prepared you to some degree for the experience of annual review, but peer review as a lecturer comes in many different forms.

As a new lecturer you may have to face any or all of the following: annual professional development interview, research review, and several teaching observations. As you progress, you yourself will be offered opportunities to become a peer reviewer in both your immediate academic community (as, for instance, a teaching observer), as well as in your wider subject community (e.g. as a manuscript reviewer for publishers, book reviewer, an assessor of research grants, etc.).

Peer review therefore comes in many forms, and also raises a number of personal, ethical and professional issues that are not always easy to negotiate, a few of which I explore below. 

1. Being peer-reviewed

Perhaps one of the most challenging things to deal with as a new lecturer is the realization that, although you have been welcomed into the academic fold, your work is still the subject of continuous assessment. In some respects this is not unique to academia – annual professional development reviews, for instance, are a feature of many jobs in walks of life. Some of the most challenging forms of peer review for a new lecturer to deal with are those associated with the Research Excellence Framework (REF). These include the REF itself, but may also include any number of internal ‘mock’ REF reviews in which your work is scrutinized and assessed by both internal and external assessors.

Other forms of peer review may take the form of teaching observations (sometimes once or twice a term), and annual professional development meetings, which usually cover your achievements in research, teaching and administration, as well as setting targets or goals for the subsequent year. If conducted well, they should also give you the opportunity to reflect on your career progression, and seek input from more experienced colleagues on how best to proceed.

These peer review requirements, however, can be a source of stress for the new lecturer. Try to separate the criteria against which you are being assessed from your own emotional responses to those criteria, and to the fact of being assessed in the first place. Remind yourself that these criteria are applied to everyone, and that they are not aimed at you personally. Remember, too, that peer assessment is a ‘snapshot’ of a relatively short time frame in your academic career. Some goals take longer than the annual review period to be fulfilled, and others do not fall strictly into the categories under consideration. Remember, too, that your personal qualities, achievements, hopes and desires exist independently of any single form of assessment.

2. Being a Peer Reviewer

As time passes you will find that you, too, become part of the peer review process that structures university life. You will be required, for instance, to observe a colleague’s teaching, or to sit on a professional development panel, to review a manuscript, or write a book review. 

Universities may offer training for some of these roles. Take the opportunity to sign up for such training if it is offered, and seek it out if it is not. Being a peer reviewer often brings with it responsibilities of confidentiality, for instance, as well as other ethical issues. No one should be expected to sit on a promotions panel, for instance, if they have not received sufficient training in how to interview a colleague professionally and sensitively.

Above all, when you are acting as a reviewer of your peers’ work, remember one thing: you may be mistaken in your views. Be cautious and circumspect as you make assessments that may have considerable impact on other’s professional activity.

Finally, remember to ask for advice – both as the subject of peer review and as a peer reviewer yourself. Peer review is an essential mechanism of academic life, but remember that you may need to turn to others for help on how best to negotiate its many demands. 

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