how to peer review for grad students

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Recently, I have seen a number of senior scholars asking for advice on Twitter about how best to give a constructive peer review to a graduate student whose work they find fundamentally flawed. It’s a good question and a particularly important one. (And, as a graduate student, one I feel particularly qualified to answer.) For many graduate students, peer review is the way we get our first exposure to the discipline beyond our own departments. Our experiences with peer review shape the way we see our broader field and our willingness to pursue careers within it.

Those first (and often, repeated) rejections also take a big toll on graduate students’ mental health. I have yet to meet a graduate student who didn’t ask themselves if they belonged in academia after receiving that first rejection letter. No matter how much academics try to normalize rejection as part of the process, graduate students’ impostor syndrome flares up and it can become really difficult to sit down and start writing again. If you’ve never had validation that your work is good, it can be hard to believe that you can produce something great.

It’s easy to recognize that senior scholars sending out long, tough reviews want to improve the scholarship before them, but you can’t improve the scholarship if you scare the scholar out of pursuing the project they submitted for your review—or out of academia altogether.

Facing my own particularly harsh rejection this week, I spent some time thinking about the reviews I have found the most helpful at this stage in my career—and those that were such a gut punch that I disregarded them altogether. I came up with a list of recommendations for reviewing articles you imagine have a graduate student as an author.

Share what excites you about the manuscript. Before you dig into the critique, make space to enthuse about the graduate student’s potential as an academic. A big part of learning how to be an academic is learning what you’re doing well. Comment on the parts of the manuscript that make you excited for the next draft. Help the graduate student see their strengths and what parts of the paper are worth keeping. Give them a prod to get excited about working on this paper again!

Think to the future. It might be a small thing, but I always feel more supported by reviews that use phrases like “in future drafts” or “for the next stage of revisions.” It’s a reminder in the review that rejection—and the feedback you get in the process—is part of writing a great article. It’s also a reminder that a rejection isn’t a reason to give up on a project altogether.

Pick your battles. Graduate students don’t often know what to prioritize in revisions. Long lists of nitpicky concerns almost guarantee that the graduate student you reviewed will miss the most important points you made. Choose the most important critiques you have to give and hone in on those. Try to keep your review to two pages or less. Trust the peer review process (and the graduate student’s advisor!) to address some of the less pressing concerns that arose during your review of the paper.

Ask questions. It can be difficult for a young scholar to get out of their own head enough to understand some of the critiques they’re facing. Push them in the right direction by asking provocative questions you think will advance the way they see their work. For example, “Your view of masculinities is limited,” is less useful than, “Have you considered the impact of structural inequality on how different men perform masculinity?”

Recommend literature. I often get reviews that indicate I’m not citing the literature the reviewer thinks I should consider, but very rarely do those reviewers offer any advice on the literature they think I should have included. That kind of a review can lead graduate students thinking, “But I thought I did have a grasp of that literature. What am I missing?” If there is a citation or two that you think would point a junior scholar in the right direction, reference it explicitly.

Let the typos go. When a paper has huge flaws, nothing is more distracting from that fact than a list of small typographical errors. Plus, it makes the reviewer look petty (especially when there are typos in the review itself). Trust that the junior scholar will catch these mistakes when they’re editing the paper—or leave these comments off until the R&R stage. Don’t leave a graduate student with the impression that the biggest problem with their paper was poor proofreading.

Be kind. While some scholars cling to the traditional belief that harsh reviews are the only helpful reviews, the reality is that most junior scholars take more out of reviews that were kind and optimistic about the value of their work. Comments like, “I see no future for this paper” or, “The author is incompetent in the basics of academic writing” are hurtful and they are not at all helpful. (Those are also all real sentences from reviews I have received.) We aren’t supposed to know everything or get our papers right on the first draft—that’s why we’re in graduate school. Mistakes shouldn’t make us feel like lost causes.

Reviews can be critical and constructive. For example, consider replacing something like, “This paper reads like a litany of the researcher’s field notes, tossed together at random with minimal analysis,” with something more like, “It would be useful in future drafts to include more analytical scaffolding around the quotes presented. It was hard to follow the author’s train of thought through the findings section.”

My personal take is that mean reviews are lazy reviews. It’s easier to insult an author than it is to offer constructive feedback. If you aren’t up to the task of helping improve a paper, then don’t agree to review it. That reviewer spot could have gone to someone who is supportive of the graduate student’s scholarly project and could have helped them hone their ideas and become a better academic.

Recognize your own limits. Sociology is a broad discipline. We often review manuscripts that are a little bit outside of our own wheelhouses, especially when new topics are emerging in sociological study (e.g., transgender studies, sexual violence). When reviewing someone you believe is a graduate student, be sure to recognize the limits of your own knowledge—just as you would with an author who is clearly a more senior scholar. It is very possible that something you find confusing or inappropriate in the article is normative among the most recent scholarship in the area you aren’t completely familiar with. Respect the knowledge that the graduate student does have.

Ultimately, graduate students are junior scholars, trying to publish for the first time. These are people we want to keep in the discipline and inspire to love their work. Write reviews that reflect the vulnerability and importance of putting your scholarly work out there. Write reviews that will make graduate students eager to start the publication process all over again.

Author: nbedera

Nicole Bedera is a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @NBedera.

2 thoughts on “how to peer review for grad students”

  1. This is great advice! I would venture that it holds just as strongly for reviewing any author’s paper – in part because reviewers, at least in blind review contexts, are actually quite poor at knowing whose work they are reviewing unless they have seen the paper presented or the like, and in part because it’s just good practices for being kind and productive and we all benefit from that!

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  2. I just had a conversation about this with a few grad students. Important to remember that many reviewers are themselves grad students. One was complaining, for example, about a paper that kept getting worse on R&R, so that the writing was really confusing. Peer reviewers are not compensated, they are donating their time. Many are themselves junior scholars still learning the trade. The idea that reviewers “owe” it to reviewees to spend extra time to make sure they are gentle with the feelings of those reviewed could be understood as a problematic demand for extra free labor. I’m not giving a pass to snark and overt meanness, but peer review isn’t mentoring or advising and bluntly stating the paper’s weaknesses is part of the job. If you think of the reviewer as donating their time, you might recognize why a reviewer could get upset at receiving a submission that has not been proofread or has elementary mistakes in it. Similarly, you could remind yourself that a snarky reviewer is more likely to be a fellow graduate student than a senior professor who is an experienced reviewer. Most reviewers go through the MS as they read, making margin comments. That long list of stuff at the bottom is their initial notes. Asking them to throw away those notes which seem nitpicky to you is asking them to discard work they took time doing. And this habit is why so many reviews focus more on the framing than on the paper’s results. (I’ve purposely changed my reviewing habits to skim the front end and go straight to the methods and results first, and then cycle back to the front end.)

    I can think of better solutions. On the reviewer side, journal editors can ask specific questions in a different order: (1) Is this paper scientifically sound? Are the results trustworthy? Evaluate the methods and the findings. (2) Is the paper theoretically sound? Does it properly engage the relevant literature? (3) Do you have suggestions for how to make this paper stronger?

    On the grad student submitter side, my suggestion is: never submit a paper until you have asked at least one faculty member and several fellow grad students to read and comment on the paper as a journal submission. Ask them to pre-review your paper pretending they are journal reviewers. It is your advisor’s JOB to do this, if they won’t do it you have a really bad graduate program situation and I agree you need and deserve help, but I’m not sure peer review is the way to get it. Form peer reading groups who read each other’s papers and give them the kind of serious critical read that they would apply themselves as peer reviewers. A peer reading group should have a culture that distinguishes between an early half-baked draft where you are just trying to get your ideas together, where the emphasis should be on helping you make sure that your methods and findings are correct and responses should be helpful and constructive, and the hard-edged critique about the argumentation and interpretation you should ask for when you are in the final stages of revision for publication.

    Many ASA sections have developed mentoring programs that pair junior and senior scholars. This is another way to get helpful constructive reviews outside the peer review process.

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