Peer review and research integrity: a personal view

In our latest Peer Review Week related blog, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Professor Emerita, Fordham University and previous Director of York Medieval Press, shares her personal views on the importance of Peer Review as a writer, an editor and a reviewer.

It’s difficult to get people to undertake peer reviewing these days: most academics are extremely busy and barely have time to do their own research let alone evaluate that of others. Nevertheless peer review rightly persists as the gold standard for academic work, for all the obvious reasons: guarantee of quality, a guard against undue influence or favoritism. It ‘takes a village’ to produce a good piece of research and analysis: no one can go it alone without predecessors or ongoing conversations in research communities.  Peer review is an important part of those conversations: a rare chance to have informed and engaged practitioners look hard at your work and offer constructive response and judgement. Just as a PhD viva or defence is not simply an alarming prospect of judgment but a seldom repeated opportunity to have readers of multiple expertise fully focused on one’s work, so too peer review is an opportunity without which we would all be the poorer.  

      I want to speak more personally of the advantages of the system both as a writer and as a reviewer.  I have often received close criticism of a piece with a sense of initial alarm, perhaps even affront (they want to change my hard thought-out points and words!!). After this initial self-protective and egotistic response, I have always eventually seen the reviewer’s point of view and felt profoundly grateful.  After you calm down, it is quite clear that you’ve been saved from many bêtises or that your argument has been tightened or that the section you were so proud of really was digressive and you will get more sustained attention from your readers if you ditch it.  If you honestly disagree ultimately over some points, you can make a case for that while undertaking the suggestions and remedies you do find helpful. The really frustrating thing is to have a lazy editor/peer reviewer who simply says, ‘yes that’s fine’  rather than putting in the analytic sweat that’s going to notch your work up several degrees.   Although many academic acknowledgements serve in part as pedigree for the work with the more great names the better, there is a great deal of heartfelt gratitude rightly expressed in for readers who have given their time and insight generously to another person’s work. The obvious disadvantage of peer review – decisions take longer – has in this respect a silver lining: by the time you receive peer review you have some distance on your work and are well placed to make good use of the review.

    As a peer reviewer, I often feel something isn’t right and have to read and re-read in order to articulate my reasons for feeling so in terms that can be acted upon effectively (possibly cursing the extra time involved as I do so). Walking the tight-rope between helping the best possible version of the author’s piece to emerge and being unduly and counterproductively exigent (trying to insist on a rewriting towards what you would have written yourself or towards your own themes and interests) isn’t easy. But if you don’t walk it, you risk being rather useless on the one hand or prone to shrinking the world of possibilities to your own measure on the other.  And of course, if you never undertake peer review your sense of what’s going on in your own and adjacent fields is correspondingly restricted or outdated.  

    On either side, peer review is a relation of intrinsic value when properly pursued. Doing without it impoverishes academic work. People who do it well out of a mixture of generosity, a sense of what the subject needs and serious analytic attention to others’ work give real and significant service. How delighted we all are when our students take constructive criticism and run with it perhaps beyond the original vision of the criticism, and how much this should be a model for post- graduation academic production.  Those who receive good peer review flourish intellectually and so do our fields of work.

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