Advice for Grad Students: How to Do Academic Peer Review

A grad student friend of mine called in a panic a few months ago asking how to do a peer review. “Should I say yes? Is this a good thing? Is this just free labor? How the hay do I even do one of these things?!?!?!?!”

I admit the last question floored me until I recalled that I took a class with the amazing Barbara Katz-Rothman and Juan Battle when at the Graduate Center CUNY that explained this process to me. As a cultural geographer, I begged my way “Writing for Sociologists” and it made my academic life so much easier. To write this post, I reached out to colleagues about how they do peer review. I also draw on my experience as admin associate of WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly for three years and my service on multiple editorial boards to offer some best practices / shortcuts / ways to not let it devour your life. I am a social scientist so that when I speak of “methods,” I mean it is key to reveal how someone did their actual research. I cover when to reject, how to outline a helpful peer review, and why the labor in this project is of use to us all. In tandem with this post, I recommend the post How to Respond to Peer Review which came out immediately following this one.

First, let’s answer my friend’s first three questions. Should you say yes? Is this a good thing? Is this just free labor? Yes, yes, and yes. Peer review is the way we evaluate one another’s work for rigor, exactitude, and contribution. It’s key to have a voice in that process and when you have a steady paycheck and lack of precarity, it’s fair to take on more than when handling adjunct/postdoc/visiting prof positions. I find most colleagues limit themselves to conducting 4 to 12 peer reviews per year. I did up to 12 in grad school until someone explained to me I could limit this number. (Oy.) Then I did around 6 until joining multiple editorial boards and now it’s around 8 per year. Also, I am not a moron. I *hate* unpaid labor and I am ceaselessly speaking out against being sucked into neoliberal volunteerism; I also believe in this process and the work we create. So: onward.

Of note, the worst element of the unpaid labor is that for profit journal conglomerates like Elsevier boast that their contribution and the high costs of journals is our academic peer review labor. When we are all in it together: hurrah. When we are be manipulated: hiss. Lesson: be careful who you agree to do peer review for. I believe many scholars have imagined peer review strikes–especially against nefarious journals who overcharge for access–but they have yet to materalize. So many of us are treading water seeking positions where there are so few in existence that others will pick the load; hence the adjunctification of the universities. Regardless, I expect much will change in this process over time and it’s key you know how it works, why, and how to set your limits while knowing your contributions within it.

Now, how do you actually do a peer review? I recommend the following steps. I want to say at the outset that I limit my time in this process. I can get engrossed in review as much as the next person so I put aside 2-5 hours per review. I also encourage you to imagine you are reading a colleague’s paper–no one you are close with but someone you respect. It can get messy when everything is distant and digital and it’s good to remember we are all just producing knowledge together. And away we go!

  1. Read the description of the journal on their website.
  2. Check out the journal’s peer review form to see what kinds of questions they ask. Usually you will see questions such as does this fit our journal?, does it have a central, clear argument?, and/or does this add to the field?
  3. Read the article through quickly and do not to line edit. I often hear from colleagues that they are shocked by the lack of finality in the versions of papers they receive. Do not do the authors’ work for them by editing in text! Instead, consider making marks for the following issues, all of which will help you make your arguments to reject, revise, or accept this article.
    • Lack of clarity or general confusion
    • Multiple major arguments made
    • Disagreement with argument
    • Exciting contributions
    • Any missing or overwritten elements: methods, data sources, arguments, literature review, citations
  4. Wait, are you really saying I should NOT make edits in the text? YES, I AM SAYING DO NOT USE YOUR TIME LIKE THAT. See above.
  5. Okay! So let’s say this is just awful. Should I reject this right out? Use your gut reaction: does this article, as it stands, fit the journal and/or field? If there is no way this article should be in this journal, let alone this field, then write a couple of paragraphs saying so. For example, I once reviewed an article for Gender, Place and Culture which is a major geography journal about, you guessed it!, gender and culture; however, this article never cited anyone in geography or mentioned gender. It also helped my decision that this article was maybe 14 pages long when articles usually come in at 20-25 pages. Not a match, folks. Do not feel bad for issuing a rejection. Journals are backlogged and articles need the right fit.
  6. What to say first about the article? Before you even begin to think about the accept with major or minor revisions checkboxes, write a paragraph saying what you as the educated reader think this is about. It’s important the editors and author(s) know what you think it is about because if each reviewer (there are 2-3 of you and one is likely on the editorial board) says something wildly different, there’s a huge issue.
  7. What to say next? In your next paragraph, say why this is a fit for the journal and your major requirements and suggestions (those are distinct, friends) for the author(s). Is there more than one argument? Is there one argument but it’s in a fog quite like pea soup? Help a brother, sister, themster, and/or zeester out and be forthright but not mean. Be clear about what idea is the core of the article and should be homed further.
  8. And next? Share about 3/4 to 2 pages of ideas (single-spaced) total about what needs to change. I recommend listing the page number if you have notes per page (as I always do), and then adding any summary thoughts in a third paragraph above. Again, do be clear about what is required (cite David Harvey here! that’s his idea!) or what is suggested (Harvey’s idea xyz could help you out here…). Writing any more text in your review than this can be overwhelming–both for you, the editors, and the author(s).
  9. Whoa. Here is the big moment. Accept with major or minor revisions, or just accept? I have heard of one paper getting accepted with no revisions so let that go unless you have found the most magical paper of all time. My friend who had a meltdown about how to do peer review found the major/minor distinction confusing, and I have heard the same from everyone starting out. Here’s how I and others I know understand it: minor revisions implies this paper is a solid fit with a solid argument but still needs work. Major revisions means that the rewrite will be arduous but the outcome will place it in the minor revision or full acceptance category. In other words, read your comments and say: is this major or minor? If still stuck, tell a colleague and then hear yourself talk aloud and select.
  10. That’s it? Yes. By writing out the peer review in these steps, you have helped make the decision clear to yourself. No quandaries, just check the box already.
  11. Make sure you answer any other questions the journal has for their review.
  12. If the editors offer a comment box to send private  notes, this is where I make a plea to keep or issue a warning to be wary about an article as a fit. They are busy. Be helpful. You may be an editor some day yourself. Oh, and the editors are unpaid too.

Now that you’ve completed the peer review all over, do be sure to list the journals or volumes for which you have performed peer review on your CV. Many scholars include a section entitle Peer Reviw or Journal Peer Review. To save space, I put mine into two columns on CV and list them out on my online CV. It’s great for employers to see your role in this process.

But, wait! Is it really over? An editor may reach out about doing a second round of review. I only agree to this when the article is completely in my area (geographies of genders and sexualities) and I have the time which is maybe twice a year. I skim my former comments, see the author’s responses, and read quickly through to see if they followed through what I expect is required to make this a quality article.

But, wait! No one has even asked me to the ball, i.e. how do I get to do a peer review? If you have never done a peer review and would like to, email a few of the editors of a journal or two you admire or ask your adviser/committee for advice. The help and insight are highly sought after and it’s great experience. My faculty was more than supportive of letting strong students with two years of coursework and all ABD students take on this responsibility.

Last but the opposite of least, be especially kind to the assistant managing peer review. They likely enjoy and believe in what they do and they are never trying to be mean or manage you. They just have a lot on their not-paid-enough plate.

Onward. Under neoliberalism. But onward and for change for the good.