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.
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.
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?