On Being A Peer Reviewer

There is a decided push, if not an outright edict, in academia to publish in peer reviewed journals. It is a gold standard for research in most areas, and viewed favorably even in areas where monographs are more prevalent. The linchpin is peer review – it has been read and evaluated by other scholars before publication. The entire structure of peer review is built upon this.

And yet, being a peer reviewer essentially counts for nothing on an academic cv. The act of participating in the scholarly scaffolding is a voluntary effort that brings no benefit to the person doing that work. This is one of many conundrums in the life of scholarship.

I am a peer reviewer for three academic library journals, and read, on average, about eight to ten manuscripts a year. Some are a joy to read, and others are not. At the best of times being a peer reviewer means that I have an advanced look at scholarship that is directly related to my work and interests. It’s like having someone read the journal for me and send me the articles that would be of the most interest. Some of the best articles I have reviewed have provided me with new ways of looking at things or concrete suggestions for how to improve my day-to-day work life.

Other manuscripts provide me with examples of what not to do. Sometimes there is no “there” there – no real information or research or structure. Or it is clearly a “least publishable unit” situation where the information is a tiny part of a larger project. Some manuscripts are clearly based on internal reports, a “how we did it good” manuscript. There are publication outlets for these types of materials, but probably not a peer reviewed journal. Some could be reconstructed into a peer review project, but it would be a lot of work. The most confounding materials, for me at least, are those with a very involved mathematical basis, lots of formulae and equations. I just don’t have the training or knowledge to do well with those and always include that in my remarks. Another issue is manuscripts written by people whose command of the English language and American word usage is limited at best. The terminology used in other countries is not always the same as that used here, and trying to figure out how the academic structures they are mentioning operate can be challenging. I’m sure it is just as frustrating on the other end of the process. I believe firmly that people should use the terminology of the culture presented, but it might take some explanation for others to understand. I do admire the tenacity of international scholars. I read one manuscript through three different versions before it was published. Even when the process is difficult I do tend to learn something about libraries and information networks in other countries.

That leads to the last thing I want to mention. Being a peer reviewer has also spurred some of my own research. I learn new things or am introduced to places, programs, and so on, that I hadn’t known about before, and doing additional research to adequately evaluate the manuscript brings questions to mind. Sometimes I wonder about the larger picture, or something sort of related or how that idea would apply to something else entirely. The same thoughts come to mind when reading published materials, this is just an early window, and, of course, the only window on manuscripts that don’t quite make it to publication. It doesn’t mean they don’t bring good ideas to mind, just that this particular manuscript doesn’t work for this particular journal.

I wish all of the authors of the manuscripts I read good fortune, even though I don’t know who they are. When I see some of the articles in final published form there is a sense of almost parental pride. Though, to be honest, I tend to forget most of the manuscripts not long after reading them. The publication process can take a long time and by the time an article hits print I have probably reviewed at least a few more manuscripts and gone through some other journal issues or readings for my own research. Sometimes I will skim an article and think “oh, this seems familiar,” and realize that I read it in an earlier form during peer review. It is like running into an acquaintance, a friendly flash of a warmth and recognition.

Publishing in a peer reviewed journal does, at least to me, imply a debt to the process, easily fulfilled by being a peer reviewer. I do wish more weight was given to this as professional service. It is a positive influence on my research and work life so I will continue to do it regardless and encourage others to do the same.

About juliemstill

Julie Still is working on a dissertation in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg. She has a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Library Science from the University of Missouri, and an M.A. in History from the University of Richmond.  Librarian by trade, writer by choice, once (and future?) Girl Scout leader and community participant, she reads history (all kinds), science fiction / fantasy (ranges from Scalzi to McKillip), mysteries (varied), and more.
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