A Peer Reviewer’s Anxieties: An Introspection


In my graduate seminar: President’s Dream Colloquium on Making Knowledge, as a part of our course work students must engage in different forms of public knowledge/scholarship. My course work was based on these three projects: Q & A interview about my graduate research with Simon Fraser University’s student newspaper The Peak; my research communication tips; and this piece is on my reflections of being a peer-reviewer.

In my seminar, all student work is peer reviewed by another classmate and will be published to the class open access journal. In addition as a part of my duty of engaging in public knowledge, I am also peer reviewing a manuscript submission for Contingent Horizons, which is an anthropology student-lead open access journal from York University.

Anxieties regarding my perceived inexperience doing peer reviews is the impetus for this blog post. Below I share the insights of my personal introspection and how I unexpectedly came across a post by Joseph Dumit on his notes on the process of reading, which has shaped and positively informed my understanding of the peer reviewer. While the peer review process is an important part of academia, my goal through this post is to provide some insights on what it’s like, for me, a graduate student to be a journal peer reviewer for the first time.


After receiving the manuscript: thoughts about actually having to peer review

I feel sick in my stomach thinking about peer reviewing someone else’s work. While I review and provide feedback on student work all the time for some reason I feel peer reviewing is different. Students are made aware of a class’ grading rubric, and they understand my role as their teaching assistant or tutor marker. Perhaps, some of my students have had me before; therefore; are aware of my expectations. Whereas I view peer review process requiring high attentiveness to detail and critical analysis of an author’s work. I have never peer reviewed for a journal before. How do I know how much feedback is too much? How much criticism is too much criticism? I am afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. Yet, I don’t want to be on the other side of the spectrum where I don’t offer anything constructive; come off as ‘too easy’; or worse: inept at illustrating intellectual rigour.

When I think about how the mercy of an author’s text is in my hands, I am reminded of the great English poet John Keat’s and his poem Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (here’s a sublime rendition by Anthony Hopkins), particularly this stanza:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I suppose comparing an author’s feelings to the feelings of an impoverished lover may be a stretch, but I can’t help but think they put their heart and soul into the manuscript: they were courageous enough to share their ideas to the world. Moverover, who am I (a measly Master’s candidate) to peer review someone else’s work? What authority do I have to peer review a journal manuscript, especially if I do not have expertise on the author’s topic?

Imposter syndrome

After reflecting upon my concerns, I connected these thoughts to the term imposter syndrome, which is used to describe graduate students’ feelings of perpetual ineptitude: we are never enough; we never are smart enough; we are never productive enough.

Furthermore, why am I so concerned I will hurt someone’s feelings through the common practice of peer review? Yet in my training as a scholar, I have been taught to critically engage with other scholarship. Rebuttal arguments. Support arguments. Elaborate on arguments. Find flaws in arguments.

So why do I have a mental roadblock when it comes to peer reviewing? I suppose it is from my (now not so subconscious) assumption, after someone finishes their PhD they have developed a ‘thick skin’ and are used to and expect academic criticism. I reckon most scholarly work is published by those in the midsts or have already finished their PhD. I suppose I view the development of ‘thick skin’ as a rite of passage for PhDs. Henceforth, the more established a scholar is the thicker their skin will be.

With the exception of my Making Knowledge Public seminar, I have never shared my comments about an author’s work outside the confines of a course. In the seminar, we used the the online platform Hypothes.is to publicly annotate readings, which some were authored by individuals who spoke in our seminar colloquium. I admit that mine were often highly critical, yet despite this I had no qualms about sharing my opinions because I thought the authors weren’t likely going to read or care about my comments.

As a result, I started thinking about my positionality. I realized much of my anxiety is based in this belief that I have a greater connection with an author as a peer reviewer: I know my feedback will be read, and the author and journal committee may take it quite seriously depending on the gravity of my review. Whereas, I felt like I did not have any connection with the authors of the course readings I annotated.

Semantics: ‘peer’ and ‘review’

Since I have not engaged in formal peer review before I thought a deconstruction the term may be useful in helping alleviate my anxiety. What comes to mind when I think of peer? I think of a collegial relationship and horizontal power-relations. Review? In terms of texts, I think about looking over or something being viewed by more than one set of eyes.

Doing this exercise helped me re-contextualize my role as the peer reviewer. When I connected the words together I envisioned the role of someone who is supportive and helpful, and who aids in ensuring a suitable work is published. I think of suitability being based within the journal’s objectives and appropriateness for the journal’s intended audience

Guidelines

Next, most academic journals have specific guidelines on their expectations from peer reviewers, so I took a look at Contingent Horizons’ peer review guidelines, which states the following:

Comments from the peer reviews will be shared with the authors. As a student journal, we request that reviewers provide comments that are constructive, encouraging, and supportive. Following anthropologist Joseph Dumit’s notes on reading, the Editorial Collective encourages a generous and constructive reading of manuscripts (in lieu of a critical reading).

Okay — but what does the journal actually mean by constructive, encouraging, and supportive? I clicked on the recommended link on Joseph Dumit’s notes on reading, which lead to a 2012 blog post by Dumit. I am not sure what I expected but definitely something more organized and easier to follow than this blog post. While some words are bolded, the text requires the reader to do work by doing a close reading. Okay great, another excuse to further procrastinate on actually doing the peer review! Hooray — I went on to read and attempted to understand the text, and extracted information I found useful.

To save you time, here is my summary of Dumit’s post:

This is a blog post based on a 2012 conversation that Dumit’s had with his graduate students on ways of academic reading, which he calls “modes of reading.” These modes of reading have different approaches which will provide a reader different insights from a text. A reader can do more than one mode of reading at the same time.

While nothing in his post explicitly talks about the peer review process, I do find these reading strategies outlined immensely useful: different reading practices can provide different information about and from within a text. Contingent Horizons encourages peer reviewers to do a generous and constructive reading. To me this means identifying the strengths of a text, and whether the author’s strategies of supporting their position/argument are cogent and coherent.

Overall, I believe the root of my peer review anxieties came from not knowing how to approach i.e. ‘read’ a manuscript. I did not know what my focus was supposed to be. I also realized reading complaints from academics especially from junior scholars on Twitter about the peer review process negatively impacted my perceptions. It seemed like a process of intense scrutiny against the author that is embedded within reviewers’ hidden biases and overt preferences. For instance, in academia there is the trope of ‘reviewer #2’ who is supposedly the harshest when a manuscript goes out for review. I don’t want to be that reviewer. Navigating ‘reviewer #2’ sounds worse than any of the thirty-five chambers in the 1978 kung-fu film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

Through the processes of personal introspection and reframing my role as a reviewer, I feel more confident and my anxieties have lessened*. Dumit’s notes on reading were surprisingly helpful. I hope it will be for you too. I have created a chart ordered by how he introduces the modes in his blog post; the goals of the reading mode; and how the reader can utilize the mode in reading practice. Dumit is not always clear in his writing especially near the end of hist post, thus I have attempted to fill in the gaps based on what I think he is trying to say.

You can download it here or via the download button below.

*I acknowledge that my views may change given that I am basing my peer review experiences on these two student journals. I understand that the notions of collegiality may not be applicable or are practiced in more well-known journals, especially those rooted in for-profit institutions. Therefore, I plan to revisit this piece after I gain more knowledge and experience navigating academic publishing.