This is guest post from Dr Liz Bennett. Liz is a Senior Lecturer at University of Huddersfield. She completed her doctorate in September 2012 and has submitted a couple of papers to journals based on chapters from her thesis. Here she reflects on receiving reviewer feedback.
When I first heard someone refer to feedback as being a ‘gift’ I thought it a ridiculous idea -that I should value someone criticising me or my work. However the idea feels particularly appropriate when receiving feedback on journal articles. The reviewers have taken time to read my work and have done so with care and attention. They are offering me their insights without any significant personal gain. They have provided detailed and helpful suggestions on where the work might be improved. They have challenged me and made me think more deeply and through this process my work is better. This is a gift: someone giving me something that I value and am grateful for. This is my rational response to accepting reviewer feedback.
There is also a personal and emotional dimension too. I experience getting reviews as personally challenging. The reviewers have identified areas of weakness and exposed them to me. My ideas and my writing are below the standard of others. “Needs substantial changes” seems damning. It is not that this is unexpected: I knew that critique would be likely and am willing to take on the feedback, but I experience it as challenging to my identity.
Becoming a published journal author is about my developing academic identity. It is about me and my ideas being credible in the academic world. If my work needs revising, if it is in some way flawed then doubt my sense of worth. And when the reviews appear to challenge some fundamental aspects of my thesis then question what I wrote for my doctorate.
Reviewer feedback is another challenge to overcome at the end of what was already a long journey to get my doctorate (5 years for my part time professional doctorate). Along that journey there were many challenges and set backs. Reviewer feedback is another one of those. It is tempting to want to move on to something new and more inviting rather than to revisit things which I thought were finalised two years ago. It requires stamina and self-belief to find the emotional resource to read the critique and to deal with this hurdle. It requires commitment to my ideas and determination to want to share these with the academic community to keep returning to the paper to do the revisions being.
How are stamina and self belief developed and maintained for a long time ? Are there ways you have found to achieve this?.
Interesting post. I think there’s a bigger question for early career academics as to how self-belief is to be maintained over an increasingly long period of temporary jobs in an-ever tougher job market. I say this as someone who has taken 10 years to get a permanent post. Publication is actually one means of maintaining self-esteem within the bigger picture: if people are still willing to publish what you write, that’s one indication that you should stay in the game and keep trying.
On the specific question here, as a journal editor I would say to Liz that requesting revisions, however thorough, is better than an outright rejection, and in that sense, feedback of that kind is a gift. It means someone can see what there is of value in your work and is trying to suggest ways in which you can demonstrate that effectively. I would also say that plenty of senior academics get similar feedback! It may be more common for early career scholars, but some people always find the writing process difficult and will need considerable input from reviewers and editors. ‘Needs substantial changes’ really just means: these aren’t things the author can fix in a day, so you (the editors) need to give him/her some time to resubmit. Try to think of the process as being one in which people are trying to work with you, not against you! As for challenges to your thesis, take that as proof that people are interested and have been made to think. If everyone agrees with you, you probably haven’t said much in the first place!
I see reviewer`s comments as valuable new ideas. I know I`m not perfect, and I`m grateful that someone has taken the time to find mistakes that I overlooked, before they go into print and become a permanent embarrassment. I have rarely disagreed with reviewer`s comments. The most interesting case is when two reviewers comment on the same point and disagree – if I don`t have a prior commitment to one of their opinions, then I generally accept the more critical of the two, since I think the more critical commentator has been more thorough and is more likely to be correct. In the end, these are all just new ideas to improve your paper, and isn`t that what you want? The best thing to do when reading reviewer`s comments is to put your ego aside, and pay attention. You`ll be glad you did.
When the peer review process is working, and at its best, this post is spot-on. People go out of their way to provide the right balance of praise and criticism and they do it for free. This is indeed a gift. However, sometimes, people are effectively offering you the gift of toothpaste or deodorant (or vouchers for typewriter repair school http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/1995-02-26/).
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Julie – yes it is reassuring to know that even established writers get critical comments – and yes I’m delighted that reviewers believe I have something to say.
Paul – I’m grateful to have only recieved really high quality feedback that has made me think and improved my work. Never feedback of the deodorant type….or even feedback the equivalent of a school teacher’s report… ‘must try harder’ dismissive type.
It is true that reviews are useful if we can set our ego aside, and accept the constructive parts of a critique. However, reviews of journal articles are not necessarily done by specialists on a subject we write, and the queries can stem from ignorance or lack of research on the part of a reviewer, leading to uncharitable comments. As academics we are also expected to write for the general reader, but while we address that need, we also have to deal with comments that can often damage the confidence of a scholarly identity. This problem is increasing given the rise of peer reviewed journals that are being set up over coffee chats.