The first thing that came to mind when a colleague approached me to be a peer reviewer in the past was, “I can’t do it!” Reasons for this gut response were plentiful: “I can’t because I have no experience,” “I don’t know what to look for,” and finally, “What do I get out of it?” Perhaps sensing my reticence, the colleague asked me if I had written anything for a publication or even written any academic papers at all, such as a thesis. Though I realized the aim of this question, I was still not quite convinced I could do the job. Yes, I had learned how to write academic papers and had completed quite a few by that point. When I reflected on my process, I realized that in addition to reading a lot before writing, the thing that helped most was the comments I received during the peer review stage. This feedback helped me see my writing from a new perspective. I was able to confirm areas of strength and address any weaknesses. Without that assistance, I would not have been as successful.
Recalling my successful writing experiences helped me overcome my reservations, and I was able to take up my colleague’s offer and join up with the Writers’ Peer Support Group (PSG), an independent committee within JALT dedicated to helping members improve their manuscripts pre-submission. Since then, I have been reminded of how peer review is a collegial, thus social process. Our main job is to help authors improve the presentation of their science (Starck, 2017). By working on a team with experienced writers, the knowledge and experience we gain from helping others improve their writing helps us improve our own (Talandis, 2021). Working with the PSG has been a powerful learning experience. Therefore, for this issue of The Writer’s Workshop, I am going to pick up on this theme of helping others to help yourself and show how working as a peer reviewer can improve your own writing craft. If, by the end of this column, I have convinced you to join us at the PSG, then so much the better!
Peer Review: The Basics
A peer reviewer’s basic job is to promote clarity and understandability. Even in low-stakes scenarios when a colleague asks you to informally look over their manuscript, this is still peer reviewing. How does the process work? Weller’s (2001) overview of research in the field shows that 62% of reviewers across disciplines average 3.4 hours working on one manuscript. However, the total review time is spread over several weeks, as it takes time to digest, reread, and make comments. Typically, many reviewers also read for multiple journals. The golden rule for reviewing is similar to the rule for life choices: treat others as you would like to be treated. This means that words need to be carefully and consciously chosen, as the author is in an open and vulnerable state. Weller reports that although comments do not always result in substantive changes, authors felt they did help with structuring conclusions, clarifying data, and improving the writing style. When reviewing manuscripts, peer reviewers are able to spot limitations and skips of logic, to suss out alternate interpretations of the data, and to identify any limitations of the conclusions.
Principles of the Peer Review Process
Typical Review Structure
Journal Peer Review
PSG Peer reading
Summary on suitability
Outline of the article
Points of criticism
Conclusions and recommendations
Run-through read of manuscript
Identify main objective or hypothesis
Identify type of article and place it in a category
Reread manuscript as needed
Determine if the minimum objective was satisfied or the hypothesis proven
Determine if valid information was provided or if older material was successfully assimilated and clarified
Recommend acceptance or rejection
Determine ways the manuscript can be improved
Decide on the most important areas to address
Writing the Review
Write general remarks in letter style at the beginning of the paper
Interest of the study, findings, etc.
3. Address areas you feel need:
4. Provide models or examples:
Write a sample outline
Propose section headings
Rewrite a passage; show improved writing style
5. Use in-text comments to indicate specific areas to focus on
Characteristics of a Successful Peer Reviewer
Salasche (1997) summarized the basic requirements of peer reviewing. Though a bit outdated, these principles still inform many reviewer guidelines used currently:
- Expertise with the subject at hand
- Willingness to be thorough and to spend whatever time is needed to complete a project
- A basic desire to help and to improve papers
- The ability to express informed and unbiased opinions
Though expertise tops the list, interest in a subject is also considered important and often sufficient. Expertise, after all, can be gained by reading more papers on a subject. A lack of expertise should therefore not be seen as a deterrent; it should be viewed as an opportunity to expand your knowledge. Secondly, the willingness to improve a paper indicates a basic need for personal reliability as a reviewer. In other words, can you be trusted to finish what you start? This also ties into giving feedback constructively on all aspects of a manuscript, from overall macro-level observations to the minute elements of sentence construction, word choice, and formatting advice. In the end, the purpose of a reviewer is not to reject “subpar” papers, but to improve manuscripts to a publishable level.
Beaufait’s (2013) and Salasche’s (1997) principles coalesce to become the guidelines that PSG reviewers are expected to follow when doing peer reading (Table 1). This workflow reflects a typical four-stage structure, in which reviewers typically (1) summarize the suitability of the manuscript, (2) provide an outline of the article, (3) offer constructive criticism, and (4) conclude with some final recommendations or advice (Paltridge, 2017). While looking over the information in Table 1, you should keep in mind that awareness of these ideas can also serve as guidelines for you when editing your own manuscripts. Self-awareness during the editing process is hard. That is why seeing “wrong” examples and thinking of ways to improve them is such a great exercise in improving one’s own writing.
According to Beaufait (2013), it is always important to start “with something positive. Writing is difficult and personal. Starting with the positive will put the writer at ease [sic] and make what you have to say later easier to swallow” (p. 1). Authors, similar to students, cannot act on what they do not understand. Feedback must be constructive, structured, exact (bolstered by examples), and clear. On the other hand, phrasing and consequently tone is also important. It is vital to use friendly and professional language. Beaufait et al. (2014) suggest the following advice for constructive criticism:
- Praise-criticism pairs
- Using modal verbs/frequency adverbs: perhaps you could…more regularly.
- Giving directions by offering suggestions: I’d say…
- Making clarification requests: Could you…?
- Hedging devices and question forms: I hope that you will find my remarks…
As an author, receiving feedback is a necessary aspect of the writing process. Being willing to look back at your work critically and objectively makes the editing process far less painful. Asking questions or asking for clarification are options at your disposal when submitting work and responding to feedback.
Becoming an expert reviewer and developing a keen eye for what makes an academic paper effective will have a positive impact on your own writing. As you go about helping fellow authors, you internalize the basic workflow. After a while, it becomes second nature. As you encounter typical problems again and again, you learn not to make them yourself. Therefore, peer review is not only a way to contribute to the academic community, but also a great way to update your own writing skills and widen your scope of interests. If all of this sounds interesting to you, please consider volunteering for the PSG today! You can contact us at (https://jalt-publications.org/contact). We would love to have you on board our team.
Beaufait, P. (2013, May 5). Tips for writing good reviews. [Restricted Google Document]. JALT Writers’ Peer Support Group.
Beaufait, P., Edwards, L., & Muller, T. (2014). Writing for academic publishing: Participation and collaboration. The 2013 PanSIG Proceedings: From Many, One: Collaboration, Cooperation, and Community. JALT PanSIG. https://pansig.org/sites/default/files/pansig2013proceedings.pdf
Paltridge, B. (2017). The discourse of peer review: Reviewing submissions to academic journals. http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-48736-0_1
Salasche, S. J. (1997). How to “peer review” a medical journal manuscript. Dermatologic Surgery, 23(6), 423-428. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1524-4725.1997.tb00081.x
Starck, J. M. (2017). Scientific peer review. Springer Spektrum.
Talandis, J. Jr. (2021). Understanding writer’s block. The Language Teacher, 45(6), 58-61. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTTLT45.6
Weller, A. C. (2001). Editorial peer review: Its strengths and weaknesses. Information Today.