Paper reviewing is one of those weird aspects of professional development that academics are rarely taught to do. Most of us are literally tossed into the deep end when we receive our first reviewer invitation. This may be the first time we’ve ever seen a manuscript that isn’t our own or someone in our lab’s. Because of the confidentiality around paper reviewing, we’re not supposed to share the manuscripts we’re reviewing, though many PI’s will start farming reviews out to grad students as “professional development.” While this practive is technically unethical, I was grateful that I had the opportunity to weigh in on a couple of manuscripts before I had to do this myself.
When I reviewed my first paper (as a senior PhD student), I was nervous. I’d dealt with my own reviews which varied widely (and still do) in terms of quality, length, and tone (I’ll get back to that). We often joke ruefully about “Reviewer # 3,” a fictional aggressive reviewer who is so contrary or aggressive that they sink a paper, even when the other two reviewers may be positive. When reading those reviews, it’s impossible not to try to guess who they’re from. Sometimes, the tone is so strident and aggressive that, despite myself, I picture a Silverback — a senior male, close to retirement, delighting in shredding up others’ work with scathing phrases like “leaps of logic” or “laughable” or “woefully inadequate.”
Other times, the review is so complementary and timid, the language gently suggestive rather than pedantic, the tone just so darned nice that you’re not getting anything useful out of it (or, worse, the feedback is useful but Reviewer #3’s aggression just barrels it right over). For those reviewers, I often find myself picturing a young woman, tentatively typing out what she hopes isn’t too mean of a review before signing off to sit, beleagured, in a faculty meeting where the SIlverback reviewer is already dominating the discussion.
And yeah, that’s some crappy internalized sexism on my part: picturing a timid mousey early-career woman and a strong, aggressive senior dude. I mean, there are all sorts of ways in which men and women are socialized differently that likely play out in reviewing. Certainly, the ways in which men and women academics participate in audience discussions (or don’t) can often play out along similar lines, and there are bullies everywhere in Academe (not just the locker room). So when I sit down to a review, I’ve tried to conquer sexist tropes and my own imposter syndrome and be a strong, useful reviewer. Sometimes, I worry I may over-correct, and be a little too aggressive (though this has a lot to do with tone and text). As a writer, have stood up to Reviewer # 3 when I feel like he’s wrong (again — why is Reviewer #3 always a he?!), as I often do, and editors have had my back, fortunately.
I’ve now reviewed dozens of manuscripts, and it’s still a process. I still doubt and tone-check myself. I always read the other reviews on a manuscript if I can, to see what I’m missing and give my own rfeview context. I try to highlight the positives while being firm about the things I feel the paper needs. When I first started, I spent way too much time on grammar, in part because I care about writing but mostly because I felt more confident about that than my opinion as a scientist. And as soon as I finally did start to feel confident, I became an editor of a couple of journals, so now I’m facing that old imposter specter all over again.
The worst, for me, is knowing when to reject. I know that rejection rates for most journals are high, but I often find it hard to bring myself to put that big red -R- on a paper. I usually opt for “Accept with Major Revisions” or “Revise and Resubmit” rather than an all-out rejection. I have no sense how often I should be rejecting papers. Is this me being nice? Mousey? Or just not-cutthroat?
Now that I have graduate students of my own, I’ve been thinking about how to train them to be reviewers, without creating either mice* or attack dogs**. If Reviewer #1 is that ineffectual, unconfident reviewer, and Reviewer #3 is too angry and aggressive, I’d like to be just right***: Reviewer #2. and We don’t usually have formal training for reviewers, in part for the reasons I mentioned about (you can’t exactly share manuscripts with your lab). I think one thing that was helpful for me was that my advisor occasionally shared his own manuscripts and reviews with us. I’m thinking of incorporating peer review exercises into my graduate classes, which was also helpful for me as a student.
Still, nothing quite prepares you for participating in the real thing — both dealing with reviews and writing them– like actually doing it. In the sciences, women are disproportionately less likely to be asked to review, which means we’re getting less practice, among other things. I’d love to see someone tackle whether my own sexist assumptions about attack dogs and mice are really reflecting something real about how we’re socialized as women to be nicer, more personable, and less aggressive (and vice-versa for men), which could play out in how we review and how those reviews are integrated into the peer review process.
How did you learn to review? Is this something you struggle(d) with? Have you figured out strategies for training your students? Are there gendered reviewing styles? I’d love to hear from you!
*Given that mice are known to eat their own babies, this may not be the best academic metaphor. Or maybe it is. Your call.
** The article uses the language “pit bull,” but see my comment below.
*** Does this make me Mama Bear?
Update: A reader rightly pointed out that the article linked here unfairly perpetuates a stereotype of pit bulls as aggressive, one which results in a lot of stigma and unfair treatment of animals. I’ve edited the wording instead to “attack dog,” to keep with the familiar metaphor (and the language of the paper I linked to) but to point towards the intentional training by humans that goes into aggressive behavior.