I’ve just done my first ever proper grown-up peer review of an article which had been submitted to a research methods journal. It was an interesting intellectual and emotional experience.
The article’s title was enticing and promised new insight into an aspect of research methods. I looked forward to reading it and learning about a point I hadn’t previously considered. And the content did deliver new insight – but it delivered it really, really badly. It was such a disappointment, like getting the pizza you ordered an hour late, cold, and with your favourite ingredient missing.
I felt such empathy for the author. He or she had obviously put in a fair amount of effort, and was going to be bitterly disappointed by my review. I could feel that pain. But it wasn’t a borderline decision; the article needed a lot more work. Key references had been left out – imagine an article on psychoanalysis that doesn’t cite Freud or Jung, and you’ll get the picture. Also, the argument made was woefully under-theorised, and with very little interpretive analytic work either.
I had prepared carefully, reading the journal’s guidelines for reviewers, the COPE guidelines for reviewers, and Pat Thomson’s posts on reviewing journal articles, while reflecting on my own experience of receiving reviews. So I wrote as constructively as I could, giving praise where I thought it was merited, specific references to help the author build the context, and suggesting some questions they might consider at the interpretive stage. I was quite relieved to find I was up to the job. But I still felt bad for the poor author.
I also felt bad for the entire research profession, because the argument being made was a really important one which needed to be heard. So much so that I thought I might have difficulty keeping it confidential. It was one of those points which, once stated, seemed blindingly obvious. And we all read so much. I was determined to maintain my professional standards and protect the author’s intellectual property – yet I could imagine, a few months on, absent-mindedly saying, ‘Oh yes, I read something somewhere, can’t quite remember where, but it made this really good point…’ I wonder how often that happens.
Then I had an idea. I hopped onto the web and did a quick search – and lo and behold, an article was published just a couple of months ago, making the same point. Whoopee! I could talk about it after all! But oh no… my poor, poor author…
Actually, it’s not a disaster, because there is more than enough room for two articles making this point in different journals. So I added that reference, too, to my review, and ended with some words of encouragement. I truly think this is an important article in the making, and with a little more work, the author could deliver his or her argument in an article which is more like a warm, fragrant, appetising pizza, made from good ingredients in the right proportions.