Making Peer Review Fulfilling Work

Peer Reviewer Resources

Editor’s Note: The following post is part of a series of Peer Reviewer Resources written by some of Academic Medicine‘s top peer reviewers. Check back each Thursday for the next post in the series. Read more about our Peer Reviewer Resources

By: Thomas S. Huddle MD, PhD, professor of medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine, UAB School of Medicine

Oh no! Another review! The invitation always seems to come just when 7 or 8 things due in the next 3 weeks have already pushed me under water. But I (usually) say yes—because reviewing is fun. What makes for a good review? The most important factor is a deep interest in the topic. One happens into reviewing for all sorts of reasons; as a fellow or junior faculty member it likely happens through referral by a harried senior colleague who perhaps offers to oversee the process in exchange for not having to do the grunt work of producing the review. And, at that point, the incentives to agree probably have little to do with interest in the manuscript’s topic. But, if reviewing is to be more than work, it has to become more than a way to please one’s boss, get academic credit, or curry favor with a journal’s editors.

As members of the academic community, we have intellectual interests that we’re (at least somewhat) passionate about. If that is not the case, we’re in the wrong place. The key to doing good reviews is getting reviewing assignments that match those interests. Being lucky, over time I’ve fallen into relationships with journal editors who know the kinds of things that will elicit hard thought from me. Of course, interest in a topic is no guarantee of a successful review. But its absence stacks the deck against that result, as it makes it far less likely that I will go the extra mile when necessary—spending more time than bargained for, looking at other literature that bears on the topic, or simply thinking about the problems posed longer and harder than I might otherwise wish to.

Many journals are quite directive about the elements they want in a review and ask for rankings on likert scales for a manuscript’s various qualities. While a systematic approach to components of a manuscript can be important for scientific studies, it seems to me that, in the final analysis, there can be no fail safe algorithm for judging the quality of academic work. I have found a few general strategies to be helpful; I try to at least take a look at the manuscript early in the review cycle even if I know that sustained attention won’t be possible until the week the review is due. A surprising amount can be accomplished through the mere fact of having the manuscript on one’s mind for a few days. Strong points or problems not immediately evident will often simply appear, often at odd moments when I am diverted from some other task. Another important part of reviewing for me is to take the time and effort to carefully recreate the manuscript’s argument for myself. Making sure I know what the author is and isn’t saying is an essential part of assessing his or her work—and getting the argument right is especially important when it’s an argument I (initially at least) find implausible. A third point of which I often have to remind myself is the importance of thinking through how a case might be made for an author’s thesis when that thesis is insufficiently defended. This is especially important when the manuscript evokes an immediately skeptical reaction. If even after careful consideration I am going to render a verdict more negative than positive, I find it important to be able to point toward a potential alternative version that would work, if at all possible.

My approach to reviewing has naturally been influenced by the reviews I’ve received. And the most helpful reviews are always those, whether positive or negative, in which it is clear that the reviewer really engaged with what I was trying to do—just as the most frustrating reviews to receive are those airily dismissing my carefully wrought conclusions for reasons I had specifically dealt with in my manuscript. The hardest part of reviewing is perhaps making the effort of really engaging with a manuscript that I find to be, at the outset at least, profoundly misguided or mistaken. That can also be the most rewarding kind of review, to do or to receive.