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Advice LibParlor Contributor Reflection

A Look Behind the Curtain: What I Learned as a Peer Reviewer about Dealing with Disagreement and Respectful Conversations

LibParlor Contributor, Allison Hosier, discusses her first experience being a peer reviewer and what she learned about disagreement.

Allison Hosier is a recently tenured Information Literacy Librarian at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her current research is focused on introducing and exploring the metaconcept that research is both an activity and a subject of study and how the ACRL Framework’s acknowledgment of the contextual nature of research creates opportunities for introducing this metaconcept to students in the classroom. She regularly blogs about this work at Studying Research.


I first started thinking about becoming a peer reviewer about halfway through my time on the tenure track. I had a vague notion that this was something I should be aiming for eventually but little sense of how or when to go about doing it. In discussing it with my mentor, she recommended getting in touch with Chris Hollister, the editor of Communications in Information Literacy, a journal I had been published in a few years earlier, to see if CIL might be in need of new peer reviewers. I sent an e-mail with my CV attached and just a few days later, I was welcomed aboard.

At which point I had a nice big fit of impostor syndrome.

Because, really, who was I to be judging other people’s research in this way? I didn’t even have tenure yet! But I did have three peer-reviewed articles under my belt and a fourth research article that I was working on. I also had enough experience with reading both the positive and negative peer reviews I had received to know what type of feedback was useful and what wasn’t. Besides that, Chris provided me with a helpful introductory document that included peer review guidelines that were specific to CIL as well as a list of other helpful resources on the role of the peer reviewer to use as models.1 So I had what I needed to get started. I just needed a little confidence.

Dealing with Disagreement

That confidence was quickly tested.

“I didn’t think it was good practice to only review articles that I agreed with any more than it would be good practice for me to avoid points of view that challenge mine when doing my own research.”

By coincidence, the first article I was asked to peer review was one with which I had a fundamental disagreement. I knew this was going to be the case before accepting the review from reading the abstract, but I wanted to do it anyway. I didn’t think it was good practice to only review articles that I agreed with any more than it would be good practice for me to avoid points of view that challenge mine when doing my own research.

I start the peer review process by reading the article the whole way through without making any notes to get the lay of the land. In this case, what I read made me squirm with how desperately I wanted to argue with the author. So I waited a day or two to start writing my review. By then, I was a little less fired up. I went section by section, identifying the strengths and weaknesses I saw in each. In doing this, I felt like my disagreement with the author actually helped because I could find places where more work needed to be done to convince someone like me of their point of view. It was challenging phrasing this feedback in an objective manner and, in finding weaknesses in the overall article, it was hard to know if I was being entirely fair. However, I also didn’t want to be dishonest about what I was seeing. 

“I felt like my disagreement with the author actually helped because I could find places where more work needed to be done to convince someone like me of their point of view.”

Chris had provided materials to me as part of the onboarding process that had some good recommendations related to the tone and content of a review, such as making sure not to argue with the article author on points of disagreement, which were helpful in this case. In deciding what to do, I also consulted with two more experienced colleagues on the issue, keeping the discussion general in order to preserve the anonymity of the process. One of my colleagues recommended that in submitting my review, I use the option to include a confidential note to the editors that disclosed my potential bias, which is what I ended up doing. I admitted that my disagreement with the author may have affected my objectivity and gave the editors permission to remove any comments that reflected this before sharing my response with the author. I trusted the integrity of the editors to make a good decision.

Since then, the articles I’ve reviewed have been ones where I feel no real conflict between the author’s stance and my own, so I haven’t run into this situation again. But that first experience was a good test of who I wanted to be as a peer reviewer and how I wanted to approach the review process.

Treating the Review as a Respectful Conversation

Everyone has horror stories about peer reviewers who, perhaps emboldened by the anonymity of the process, feel free to tear down the author and their work with surprising nastiness. I myself have on occasion been subjected to comments from reviewers (not at CIL) who questioned not just my research but also my intellect and experience in strangely personal ways. It’s not an enjoyable experience, especially when the underlying feedback is admittedly justified.

My goal as a peer reviewer is, first and foremost, not to be that person. Not even to the authors I disagree with. My job, as I see it, is not to demand that the author conform to my personal views of what a scholarly article should look like but instead to treat the review as a conversation with the author about their work. In identifying weaknesses, I’m thinking less about how the author can improve as a writer or researcher (though that may be part of it)  and more about how they can improve my understanding of what they did and why it’s important.

To reflect this, I may highlight a specific weak area where I feel more information or clearer information is needed and why. I sometimes will make specific suggestions on how to address the issue, but in doing so, I try to make it clear that the author should weigh this opinion with other feedback they receive and that the choice on whether to follow my advice is ultimately theirs.

“…while my role as a peer reviewer is an evaluative one, I’m not interested in using the power of that role to tear anyone down needlessly, impose my views, or act as a gatekeeper. Instead, I want to honor the work that has already been done while acknowledging that there may be more work to do.”

Producing research is not easy. This is true for any academic who engages in scholarship, but especially so for librarians, whose many other job duties make it all the more challenging to find time and motivation to do this important work. Getting an article to the point where it is ready to be submitted for review takes not only a great deal of planning and effort but also a certain amount of faith and risk. So while my role as a peer reviewer is an evaluative one, I’m not interested in using the power of that role to tear anyone down needlessly, impose my views, or act as a gatekeeper. Instead, I want to honor the work that has already been done while acknowledging that there may be more work to do. Treating the review process as a conversation is, for me, a way of showing respect to a colleague who has taken the time to produce research that adds to the body of knowledge in our field.

Now, I’ve never gotten the same article back for a second round of review, but I have seen the published versions of articles I’ve reviewed where my feedback wasn’t followed. To me, that’s okay. I respect both the authors and the editors enough to also respect their decisions on how best to present the author’s research, even if I don’t always entirely agree with those decisions.

Closing Thoughts

I don’t know if my method of becoming a peer reviewer will work for everyone, but it worked for me and the experience I’ve had as a peer reviewer for CIL has been highly valuable. The process of peer reviewing scholarship in our field has given me a whole new perspective and appreciation for the work that we do as scholars. It has also given me a new perspective and appreciation for the reviews that I receive for my own work. In part, this is because I now better understand the challenges of creating these reviews. But it’s also because the reviews I receive help to inform the type of reviewer I want to be (and don’t want to be). It feels good to be able to contribute to the profession in this way.


Notes

1. These resources included, among others: Benos, D.J., Kirk, K.L., & Hall, J.E. (2003). How to Review a Paper. Advances in Physiology Education; 47‐52. doi:10.1152/advan.00057.2002; Provenzale, J.M., & Stanley, R.J. (2006). A Systematic Guide to Reviewing a Manuscript [Electronic version]. Journal of Nuclear Medicine Technology, 34, 92‐99; and Seals, D. R. & Tanaka, H. (2000). Manuscript Peer Review: A Helpful Checklist for Students and Novice Referees [Electronic version]. Advances in Physiology Education, 23, 52‐58.


Featured image by Christos Giakkas from Pixabay


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

1 comment on “A Look Behind the Curtain: What I Learned as a Peer Reviewer about Dealing with Disagreement and Respectful Conversations

  1. Pingback: Over at The Librarian Parlor – Studying Research

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