Kevin Seeber is currently the Foundational Experiences Librarian at Auraria Library in Denver, Colorado.
Most of the time I think of myself as an academic instruction librarian. That means that I’ve stood in front of a few hundred classes and talked about peer review over the course of my career. I’ve got my standard talking points and questions for the class — “Who writes these articles? Who do you think reads them? Why would one scholar want another person to review their work before it gets published?” And while those basic definitions and examples work well enough for a library classroom, going through the process a few times gave me a very different understanding of what we mean when we say “peer reviewed.”
My first article was for a special issue of a journal. I didn’t really love the topic I was writing about, but I knew that publishing would be expected of me if I wanted to keep my tenure-track position and advance in my career, so I spent a couple of months researching, outlining, and writing. There was mix of relief and terror I when I submitted that first draft–relief that I had finally finished it, and terror that it would now be read by anonymous reviewers. “Are they going to hate this part? Are they going to know about some other article that already says all of this stuff?”
A few weeks later I received word that the article was “conditionally accepted,” meaning that it would be published, pending some edits. While that news was very exciting(!), my excitement lasted about twenty seconds–just long enough to open the attachment with comments from the editor and reviewers. As I scrolled through the document, I saw whole pages–pages I had spent weeks researching and writing–flagged for deletion, accompanied by explanations that included words like “irrelevant.” I distinctly remember thinking “if this is what ‘conditional acceptance’ looks like, I hope I never get something worse.”
But I went through the reviewer feedback, made the changes, and had my excitement restored when the article came out a few months later (and nearly a year after I saw the initial call for proposals). Looking back on that process, I realize how smooth it was, all things considered. I had written something, another instruction librarian had reviewed it, and we went back and forth until it was “pretty good.” It lined up with the definition I had usually given when talking about peer review with students.
For this post, though, I don’t want to write about that first article. I want to write about my second article, and how it almost didn’t happen.
Unlike my first article, which I wrote out of a perceived necessity to publish, my second article was something I cared very deeply about. It was the first time as a professional that I felt like I really had something to say. (For the record it took me three years in a tenure-track job, and eight years in libraries, to get to that point.) Instead of something that I worked on here and there for a few months, I wrote this article in a fury over the course of about ten days. It combined vital parts of my job (instruction and electronic resource management), recent developments in the literature (threshold concepts for information literacy), and a trendy topic in library systems (web-scale discovery). It was all stuff that I was talking and reading about on a daily basis, to the point that my literature review involved more-or-less citing all the stuff that had already been on my desk for the past six months.
After I had a draft written, I had two of my favorite librarians read it for feedback, which helped me clarify my argument a lot and made me feel like I wasn’t too far out on a limb. Unlike my first article, there wasn’t nearly the same level of anxiety when I submitted it to a journal. It was a good article that addressed a gap in the literature, and I was feeling uncharacteristically confident. Adding to that, I gave a conference presentation on the same research the following week, where it was enthusiastically received by a room full of instruction librarians. “This is a solid article” I thought to myself, in what was one of the first times my academic impostor syndrome took a break.
You can probably guess what came next.
The email from the journal editor arrived pretty early in the morning–maybe 8:30?–and I was sitting at my desk preparing to teach a class. The editor included a brief note with some positive feedback, then directed me to the comments from Reviewers 1 and 2. Reviewer 1 liked it, but wanted me to include my lesson plan. Reviewer 2 wanted to see the student assessment data that proved the concept. That left the article with a status of “revise and resubmit.”
Now, I don’t want to wander too far into the weeds of threshold concepts for information literacy or student learning outcome assessment or the early drafts of the ACRL Framework, so let me put it this way: I read the comments from the reviewers as being a combination of insulting and impossible. I read them once, got up from my desk, and walked around the library for five minutes. After I read them a second time, I had to walk around campus for an hour.
I’m decent at accepting criticism, though I usually need a few minutes after hearing it before I can really engage, so I wandered around the university and did some self-talk:
“I guess I could include the lesson plan… right? I mean, that’s counter to the whole argument of the Framework… and kind of the opposite of what I want to be doing… and really not helpful… but I could win over Reviewer 1…”
Then I thought about the comments from Reviewer 2:
“They want data. OK. Well, I would need to get IRB approval, formalize my assessment instrument, collect responses, try to get a meaningful sample size… which will take a year or so… all so that I can undermine my own argument that each library develop its own process for teaching and assessing this concept…”
I decided at that point that I wasn’t going to make the changes. If nothing else, I could withdraw my submission and post it to my blog instead. I wasn’t trying to publish this to get tenure–I was trying to publish this because I had something to say. Who cared about the medium?
Still, I was racked by doubt. Two anonymous peers had read my work and recommended that it not be published in its current state. And it wasn’t that it wasn’t sufficiently researched or well written–their criticism dealt with my central argument. As I stewed on that, I thought about how my argument had come out of my day-to-day work. That meant that their critique was not just of my research, but of my practice as a librarian.
Was I taking this too personally? Sure. But it also speaks to a broader trend within research: we often put too much of ourselves into our work. Criticism can often be helpful, but it isn’t always easy to hear.
After a day or two I started seeking advice from friends at other libraries, which was a huge help. I told them about the situation and talked about my options, and they provided me with some very useful perspective. “No, you’re not a bad librarian or researcher. Yes, you should still try to publish this in a journal.” It was enough to let me know I shouldn’t be too rash, so I sought out some additional advice from a colleague in another department. He was a relatively new professor, but I knew he had experience editing a journal, and I figured he might have some guidance on how to navigate my situation.
As I sat in his office and explained what was going on, he nodded along knowingly. It was then that I fully realized that academia is messy and complicated for everyone, not just librarians, but we can sometimes find answers through conversations like this one. Then, after a few more minutes, he told me something that was a little bit shocking:
“Yeah, sometimes peer reviewers get it wrong. Just appeal their recommendations to the editor.”
This small piece of advice from a more experienced researcher was a revelation to me. While I was very familiar with the processes involved in publication, I was completely unaware of the exceptions. I asked him to explain what he meant by “appeal.”
“Just make it clear to the editor that you respectfully disagree with the reviewers. I mean, don’t be obnoxious about it–you still need to engage with their criticisms and acknowledge their points–but state clearly why you disagree with them and won’t be making the recommended revisions. If you have a point to make, the editor will likely agree with you. And if they don’t? It’s not a big deal. Just submit it to a different journal and try again.”
So that’s what I did. I went back to my office and wrote a few paragraphs explaining why I disagreed with the reviewer comments. It wasn’t that they were wrong necessarily, just that they were asking me to write the article I wasn’t going to write. I connected my points to the literature and discussions that were currently underway, and explained that there were differing schools of thought surrounding this topic. (Turns out, sometimes librarianship can be political.)
To my surprise, I received a response a few days later from the editor, indicating that they agreed with my position. The article was officially accepted and would be published in a few months. I couldn’t believe it.
And for all of the rules that we learn over time and explain to students, there are often just as many exceptions to those rules.
Peer review isn’t a great process, but it’s still viewed as the best thing we have, so it’s worth figuring it out.
The second reason I wanted to share this is to emphasize how important it is that you talk with other people. Higher education can be very isolating at times, but it doesn’t always have to be. There are other academic librarians going through these sames processes, as well as dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of other researchers on each college campus. Have people read and critique your work. Talk about your questions, even if you think you should already know the answers. I know that requires a vulnerability that doesn’t always come easily, but it’s only through these kinds of conversations that we can better learn where the gates are, and, more importantly, how to get around them.
Featured image “Buckingham Palace Gates. London. 1905” by Phillip Medhurst [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
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The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own