“I think in seeing other people’s work, it’s reinforced in me what I find as an author to be valuable”- Reflections on refereeing

This post is the second in a series of four sharing Amanda Nichols Hess’s story with publishing, peer review, and thoughts on open peer review. (Her first chapter, “Did I just get a dissertation that is completely worthless…” discusses feelings of imposter syndrome both as a newer writer, and as an experienced one.)

Amanda and I spoke in late July, 2020. She was the first person I interviewed this summer, after I re-opened a call for interviews. In this chapter of her story, Amanda reflects on her experiences serving as a referee, and how it has improved her own scholarly writing.

Amanda Nichols Hess

Amanda Nichols Hess

Pronouns: She/her/hers

Position: Coordinator of Instruction and Research Help/ Liaison Librarian for the School of Education & Human Services

Institution: Oakland University Libraries

Fun Fact: Amanda has two dogs, George and Gracie, who she dresses in costumes related to their names on Halloween.

After Amanda reviewed the transcript of our discussion, she said she felt like the reflective process was an important component to highlight, no matter what role you find yourself in. I agree. Amanda’s experiences with imposter syndrome show how she has used personal reflection as an author, but she has also had experience with reflection as a referee.

I remember the first submission that I reviewed, I was really struck by the lack of organization. As I was reading it, I thought, “Oh my gosh, this reads like this was an internal report that they’ve cobbled pieces together because someone said, ‘hey, you should share this.’” I also remember thinking, “This seems like something that’s been coauthored by a bunch of people – it has really good information, but it’s too all over the place and has no organization.” For my own practices as an author, I definitely thought, “this is really useful to see.” I remember at the time thinking that I could see myself writing something like this, so I needed to remember some of these things that I observed. I know the difficulties of being the first author and trying to make a consistent narrative voice throughout the paper or throughout an article, or of being a second or third or fourth author and being okay with the first author making it sound how they wanted it to sound. But I was just really struck by the lack of clarity and voice, and I really felt like it really took away from, or made it difficult for me to really get to, the really important contents.

I also think it’s like a three-headed monster. I’m a reader, I’m a reviewer, and I’m an author.

They had really good ideas and it was really meaningful, but I thought there were barriers that are in the way of that. And some of them were purely formatting. Like I said, “Okay, well if you can have a structure of headings or a structure of organization that helps me to say – as a reader – I’m going to jump to this section.” I had an editor hat, but also a reader hat, because whenever I’m a referee, I take the view of, “Okay, if I’m reading this article when it comes out, what am I going to think? What’s going to be difficult for me? Or what’s going to really stand out for me? Or what am I going to want more of?” So maybe it’s a duality, but I also think it’s like a three-headed monster. I’m a reader, I’m a reviewer, and I’m an author.

I would say I definitely bring my quirks and tendencies and preferences as an author to my refereeing or my editing. I think about what I appreciate from reviewers as an author, and I benefit from comments that are focused and concrete. I hate the comments of, “There’s a lot of literature on this topic out there” with no examples. It’s like you want me to go on a fishing expedition. Even if it’s an example or two – I reviewed an article or a submission recently and I thought, “oh, I have seen these couple of articles that might be useful for this author to consider,” so I included the citations. If I’m an author and I’m already working on trying to get a piece polished and published, and I have a full time job,  and I probably have a life outside of this, too, I cannot just pour through all of the literature ever written to try and fulfill some reviewer’s specific need that they really want, which is maybe that they really want me to cite them, but they don’t want to suggest it directly.

I think about myself as a reader.

I feel like this is how my head is when I’m reading something that I’m peer reviewing, or something that I’m blind peer reviewing, or something that I’m looking at for a colleague. I think about myself as a reader. What do I want to see? What really strikes a chord in me? What do I want to see more of? What is less interesting to me or what do I feel like gets too much in the weeds? What do I think could bring more clarity to their ideas and highlight those really important ideas? What do I think is maybe getting in the way of some of that clarity? And often that’s a heading structure. I know I’ve said headings, like, half a dozen times now. I love headings, obviously.

I also think that I go into reviewing any article that I read – whether it’s a colleague’s, whether it’s a submission to the journal where I’m a peer review – with the attitude of, “This is a good article. This person is a good writer. This is worthwhile. There is a place for this in the literature, whether it’s in the exact journal that they want to submit to, or whether they’re not sure where it should go.” I really view manuscripts in a positive light. I’m not someone who has a grading mindset, who’s trying to dock points or that the author has to earn something. I go in with an open mind because I also think if it’s coming through a journal that I’m working as a peer reviewer for, it’s already passed various markers of the editor saying, “yes, this fits within our scope.” I’m not going to see something that’s offensive. I’m not going to see something, I would hope, that would raise my hackles or make me feel like this is unethical or anything like that. Again, I think part of that is the fact that I really trust the editors and the editorial board of the journal that I’m a peer reviewer for. That may not be the case everywhere.

I think in seeing other people’s work, it’s reinforced in me what I find as an author to be valuable in getting things really ready for publication when I submit them.

When I think about being an author and giving peer review feedback, I really try and think, “how would I want to hear this if I was the author of this article?” I just try and be an empathetic person. I try and be kind while still being constructive. I really try and point out what’s working really well, especially if there’s some criticism or constructive feedback to give. I try and follow that hamburger approach. I want to make sure that even if I think, “Okay, this article is a hot mess” or “This article needs a lot of work,” there are always good things to build on or positive things to say. Comments like, “This is really interesting” or “This is where I would focus” or “I want to see more of this. I’m sure that this is there and maybe just make it more apparent to the reader.” Sometimes, I think that, as an author, you have things in your head that you think are clear and they are not necessarily clear to others. I think in seeing other people’s work, it’s reinforced in me what I find as an author to be valuable in getting things really ready for publication when I submit them. So having another set of eyes, really carefully looking through things. Going through an editorial process myself a couple of times to correct mistakes, find gaps, try and catch spelling errors. The simple stuff. It’s never perfect. I always have those anyway.

Maybe this goes back to power dynamics, but I’ve reviewed a couple of papers where there’s a page count or a word limit in the journal that I review for and I’m like, “You have widened the margins, you have shrunken the font size so that you can be to the page limit. Really, if you follow the other guidelines which are 12-point Times New Roman, one-inch margins, you’re like eight pages over.” At that point, I’m like, “Okay, authors, you really need to focus in on what’s the most important thing.” I think, again, that helps me to think about being clear as an author. Sometimes you’ve got to kill your darlings. Sometimes you’ve just got to cut out the things that are really personal to you or strike a personal chord for the interest of being clear and concise and focused for your readers. I guess I think of myself in three ways as I’m looking for a paper whether it’s mine, whether it’s a colleague’s or whether it’s for a journal it’s like author, editor and reader, potential reader.

Amanda’s story will continue in the coming weeks.