the lazy reviewer costs us all

This is a guest post from Dr Julie Rowlands. Julie’s research applies a critical sociology of education perspective to academic governance, higher education systems, academic work and organisational change. The book of her PhD is on its way – Academic Governance in Contemporary Universities: Perspectives from Anglophone Nations (2017 Springer). She has also recently coedited Practice Theory and Education (Routledge, 2017), with colleagues Juli Lynch, Trevor Gale and Andrew Skourdoumbis.

Like most early career researchers, I review for a number of academic journals. In my experience it is par for the course that as soon as you start submitting papers of your own one or more of the journals will ask you to review papers submitted by others. This is part of the gift exchange which functions within the academy—it is central to the collegial nature of the profession.

Photo: Joseph Mosbaugh, Flickr Commons

Photo: Joseph Mosbaugh, Flickr Commons

The general principle of the gift exchange is that more senior colleagues mentor junior colleagues and so the next generation of teachers and researchers is nurtured and supported. However, the gift exchange not only involves the support of junior academics by professors because it is also reflected in the everyday things that academics routinely do for each other. I’ll give you an example.  Last year I applied for academic study leave (also known as outside study program or sabbatical) to travel abroad for a research project. Colleagues who had been granted leave the year before lent me their applications to use as a guide and they also read and commented on my draft submission. This year, I have done the same for two colleagues who are applying in this current round. The same thing applies when we read and comment on each other’s draft manuscripts.

In fact, the academy only functions because of the gift exchange. This is what is happening when we review book proposals and book manuscripts for a publisher, when we review grant applications for a funding agency and when we review abstracts or papers for an academic conference. Our participation in the gift exchange supports the academic work of our colleagues and, in the spirit of ‘what goes around comes around’, means that when we submit our papers/proposals/abstracts, they will be reviewed by others with expertise in the field. Contributing to this gift exchange is part of our collective responsibility to the profession—a responsibility that is much broader than the particular university we may be associated with at the time and broader, even, than the discipline within which we teach and/or research. It isn’t always convenient to do these things but most of us do them, most of the time.

When I first started reviewing for journals I found it incredibly difficult and there didn’t seem to be a lot of written guidance around at that time. I primarily relied upon the reviews of my own manuscripts as a template and this was pretty limited because I hadn’t published much at that point. Since then, resources on how to review journal articles have become more widely available (including through Patter) and I have found these tremendously helpful.

A senior colleague who edits a prestigious journal also advised me to write reviews with the aim of providing support and guidance to the writer – and not with sole purpose of deconstructing his or her manuscript. ‘Imagine that this is a review of one of your papers’, he said. ‘What would you want to see in that review and what would be helpful to you in revising your work?’

Through practice and persistence I think I have got better at reviewing and I now try to provide three-quarters-of-a-page to a page of constructive feedback structured around the key matters we all want to see addressed in a good journal article. These are things like: How clearly is the warrant expressed? How thorough is the relevant literature reviewed? Is the paper written for an international audience (assuming it is for an international journal)? How clear is the argument? And so on. I try hard to focus on big-picture issues and not get too bogged down in every last detail. Even if I am recommending that the paper be rejected, I aim to provide guidance on how the paper can be improved with a view to it being resubmitted elsewhere.

No-one, especially the authors, wants to see their hard academic work go to waste and I am mindful that in some instances this might be the very first paper the authors have submitted. Naturally, writing reviews this way is time consuming. It typically takes about three hours or so and maybe longer if I need to re-read the article a number of times, which I often do.

Amongst the journals I review for are several that return copies of the blind reviews to the reviewers when a decision on the manuscript is forwarded to the author. Basically, you get your own review back plus that of the other reviewer, together with a decision and some commentary from the editor. This practice is incredibly helpful when you are new to reviewing because one of the things we early career academics worry about is whether our review will be wildly different from what the other reviewer might say and thus show up our inexperience or lack of knowledge.

But in the past twelve months I have had two experiences where it is clear to me that the second reviewer has said practically nothing. That is, they have submitted a review that is only one or two lines long and that basically says the paper is rubbish, or something to that effect. The first time this happened I was shocked; the second time I was annoyed. Imagine being on the receiving end of such a review? It chiefly says that the paper was so poor it was not worth engaging with and while this might be how the reviewer felt in the heat of the moment, it was incumbent upon them to give it some space, calm down and be more constructive.

Photo: Erokism. Flickr Commons

Photo: Erokism. Flickr Commons

Beginning academics who submit their work for review in good faith deserve better than this and these reviewers must themselves have been beginning academics once. As the other reviewer I also felt a bit ripped off—that I had spent many hours doing what I thought was necessary to produce a helpful review while the other person had clearly invested next to no time at all. It wasn’t even clear that these reviewers had actually read the papers to be reviewed—or had read them thoroughly. It also inconveniences the journal editors who in most cases are forced find a third reviewer at short notice because these one or two liners are not really reviews at all.

The gift exchange upon which academia depends works on the basis that colleagues will make a fair and reasonable contribution given the resources they have available at the time. Thankfully, this is mostly what happens. But not always.

What are your experiences of the gift exchange within academia?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic gift exchange, journal article, Julie Rowlands, reviewing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to the lazy reviewer costs us all

  1. Halla Holmarsdottir says:

    Dear Dr. Rowlands

    Thanks for bringing up the issue. Like you, I do my best to provide a thorough review with clear comments on what issues the authors need to work on. I have also received the reviews back once the decision was made and to be honest I have felt the same about the other reviewer. Generally most reviewers do a good job, but those few that fall into the category you describe here do not live up to what we should expect as academics. Although the review process is a voluntary exercise, I believe that as reviewers we need to be serious about our work. Sending back a few lines of text to say the paper is rubbish is both unhelpful, but also downright disrespectful. For early career scholars such reviews can be both puzzling and challenging to deal with in terms of revision. I urge all of us who are reviewers to consider what kind of feedback you would like to have and to work from there.

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and for the great points you have made. It is really helpful to know how others respond to this issue. Julie

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  2. Agnes says:

    Julie, I too have experienced the frustration of a lazy reviewer – as an author and co-reviewer. I am now an Associate Editor of a journal, and always invite a third reviewer if there is a poor review. This means the process takes longer, but I think it is ultimately less frustrating for the author!

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Thanks for responding to let us know how this issue affects you and the ways you manage it in your role as an associate editor.

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  3. Richard Whitecross says:

    Dear Dr Rowlands,

    Your post resonates with me. I began reviewing during my Postdoctoral Fellowship and relied on guidance from my senior colleagues. I always worked on the basis of trying to be constructive. It can be time consuming to find the right tone, approach and clarity when preparing the review. Like you, I think it is worth the effort. I have also received from a major US journal the feedback and decision which is helpful. However, what shocked me was some of the brutal language used. Ok, I have received direct, pointed feedback, but never as destructive in meaning or possible intent. No matter at what stage of our academic careers we should respect those who have submitted their work. It may need further work or be placed in an alternative journal but we should aim to be supportive.

    On gift exchange, well in addition to sharing successful applications, acting as critical friends, one early example was when a friend from Law School returned to see one of his former professors. He told her about my interests and my possible PhD topic. So she gave him a prepublication version of her ground breaking book. I still have it today twenty one years later.

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Hi Richard, this is a lovely anecdote about the gift exchange within academia. I have similar tales of generosity from when I was a PhD student and I think this was one of the reasons I was motivated to write about the one or two liner reviews – because I know it isn’t typical.

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  4. pjmatthews1982 says:

    You’re completely right about the role of generalised reciprocity in academic conduct – it’s something I think about a lot. The other aspect to this is the role of the editor. We also rely on the “gift exchange” of reviewers – we rely on the goodwill of reviewers and in turn are happy to process submitted manuscripts. As an editor I get equally frustrated and angry about short, essentially pointless, reviews. We can only make our decisions based on reviews, and such reviews make these decisions much more difficult. It is also extremely embarrassing to have to apologise to an author for the state of the reviews they have received.

    For me, an issue is that reviewing is something ECRs are expected to pick up as tacit knowledge, as you identify. I think universities/HEI’s should offer training on how to review to keep people’s skills refreshed. Of course, we’ll then run into the problem of the people who actually need the training thinking they don’t and not attending, but at least it will be a start.

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Hi, I completely agree about the technique of reviewing being something that ECRs are expected to pick up as they go along – it can be really difficult when you are just starting out. Without intending this as a promo, the guidance on Patter and in the Thomson & Kamler book Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals was extremely helpful for me. I like your idea of universities offering sessions on this to ECRs.

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  5. Paul says:

    I agree wholeheartedly in principle (I try to review 2 or 3 for every one I submit), but with a slight pause on the idea that a short review is a lazy one. In some cases, it relates to a pragmatic response to conflicting pressures: being asked to review many, many, many papers (I think I did about 10 in the last month, during the busy summer season); knowing that you could refuse to review some of them but that editors are often fairly desperate for people, especially in niche areas, and that refusal can delay a decision by weeks/ months; and, in many cases, being able to identify quickly and highlight succinctly one major problem on which the authors should focus. So, mine are often quick because I know that (a) some are not close to being ready (in some cases, people need advice about when to submit; in others, one wonders if they submit early to get early feedback, knowing that the paper is not ready) or (b) I will see some again after the first revise/ resubmit.

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    • Julie Rowlands says:

      Thanks for your response Paul. Like you, I experience these sorts of time pressures and I also find it hard to say no when invited to review. I enjoyed your comments on what motivates authors to submit when they do – a really interesting perspective that I hadn’t previously considered.

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  6. Rachel Hilliard says:

    A really nice discussion of the gift economy. Reviewing scholarship applications recently I was shocked at some of the unacceptable references submitted by academics in support of students. Unfortunately academia rewards lazy (selfish) behaviour.

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  7. Julie Rowlands says:

    Hi, thank you so much for your lovely feedback about the gift exchange focus of the post. I agree, too, that it can be especially crushing for students to receive very negative reviews on their early work. I had a similar experience myself. What really helped me not get overwhelmed by this was a senior professor at my university who ran a workshop at a writing retreat where he put up copies of all the really negative reviews he had received over the years. This professor is an international leader in his field and his generosity in doing this helped we students to see that even the best can receive very negative reviews at times and that we should try to not to take it personally – these reviews are not a measurement of our worth as scholars. But of course I agree with you – it would be even better if such reviews could be couched in more helpful language in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. erejnion says:

    You make it sound as if it’s driven my some sort of collectivist sense of responsibility.

    No. Or at least, not always.

    For some it’s mostly about intellectual curiosity, highly individualistic in its nature. You spend time to review a paper because it’s an intellectual challenge. Teaching is also an intellectual challenge. And then, of course, you have some pride, and the normal human desire to be remembered, to have progeny – this time not as a biological function, but as an academic descendant. Frankly, academics is full of all sorts of assholes, so try to not fall into the delusion that only your sort of assholes thrives in there. What’s important is that even the biggest assholes generally do their part in the scientific advance of humanity.

    So yeah, the lazy reviewer costs us all; but it’s not like humanity would be better without its lazy contingent. Just take it in stride. This laziness will surely spark something somewhere; it always happens so.

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