First Peer Review – And Pizza

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 bad pizzaforward 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 smiley pizzadifferent 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.

When To Stop Reading

I wrote a post, a while ago, about the difficulties I experienced in letting go of a piece of writing. I can also find it difficult to let go pile of booksof reading.

One of the things I’ve been doing for #AcWriMo this year is working on an article for an academic journal, about the role carers can play in mental health research. The role service users can play is fairly well established now (which is not the same as it all being plain sailing) but there is clear evidence that service users’ participation will benefit the research itself and everyone involved. There is no such evidence for carers, who are often ignored or sidelined by service providers, researchers, and others, yet I believe that carers also have a unique and valuable role to play in mental health research.

According to the literature, so do a few others. I’ve found some articles which are directly relevant, primarily from the Australian region of Victoria, and some others which are peripherally relevant, from various places. I’ve probably found enough. But there’s a niggling anxiety that maybe, just maybe, there’s a crucial, seminal article somewhere which I just haven’t found yet.

When I did my PhD, I read from two bodies of literature: work on emotion (huge, over more than a century, no chance whatsoever I could read it all) and partnership (comparatively small, over a decade or two, I could definitely read most of it). That was an interesting experience. I read as much of the partnership literature as I could lay hands on, and a more targeted selection of the emotion literature. One key emotion text was published during my doctoral studies, and I didn’t find out about it until I was close to the end. I read it swiftly, and banged in a few references, but my examiners turned out to be dastardly clever and very much on the ball. They pulled me up for not having considered the writer’s arguments with sufficient care, and made me go back and read and cite her work again.

This has left me with a dread of reading inadequately and being found out. And there is so much out there to read! Journal articles, grey literature, chapters, whole books, and more being publbig pile of booksished every day. I can end up spending hours devising new search terms that might just uncover one more relevant piece of text. For a journal article it’s not possible to review all the literature, as you might for a doctoral thesis. But reviewers and editors will expect a writer to have a good understanding of the literature in the field, and to be as familiar with recent developments as with the seminal pieces of work.

And that’s my guideline. Do I have a good understanding of the literature, which includes recent developments as well as key texts from longer ago? If the answer is ‘yes, I think so’, then I can stop reading. While I may still have missed something relevant, it’s over to the reviewers, then, to point that out. And after all, if I carry on reading for ever, I’ll never get any writing done, and what use would that be?