“Peer review should be a formative feedback process”: collaboration and mentoring

This post is the third 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. Her second chapter, “I think in seeing other people’s work it’s reinforced in me what I find as an author to be valuable” elucidates her approach to refereeing.)

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 peer review as a collaborative process that should be approached as a mentoring relationship.

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 was once interviewed on the BBC about a creative nonfiction piece that focused on her Greek and Turkish family history.

What Amanda pointed out as a learning process in her previous chapters, I like to think of as part of mentoring and collaboration. She discusses early mentorships with colleagues, co-authoring articles at the beginning of her academic librarian career. But she also sees that there is learning as a referee and author, whether these are formal reviewing relationships or informal mentoring relationships with colleagues who read your work and offer supportive comments. There is also a role for Amanda to play as someone who acts as a mentor.

I think the emotions that I have felt around peer review—the fear, the insecurity, the frustration, the lack of clarity.  The lack of –I don’t even want to say transparency because part of the process is that it’s blind—but just the lack of understanding of the process sometimes, especially as someone who didn’t have experiences as a graduate student, as a researcher assistant who was working with a faculty member on publishing or working on research. I just think there’s so much assumed knowledge that we just think “Oh, well people think they know how this process works” and I don’t think I did. Even in seeing some of my colleagues who were hired after me, whom I’ve worked with, or who are working through our tenure and promotion process, I think it’s the same for them. And so I think there’s this level of secrecy, or I think sometimes it can be kind of scary to people or intimidating because there’s this unknown. I feel like I’m happy to share my experiences on both sides of the table to maybe make that a little less unknown or a little more known to people.

I feel like that would have helped me when I was first starting. I had some mentors, informal mentors or people who were willing to help me or work with me or talk with me about the process. I’ve published in different journals, some of which are more along the lines of, “We view peer review as a way to help authors improve. We try and work with authors as much as we can to get them to a point where their article can be published,” and some that use peer review as a real filtering tool to say, “This is our submission rate, but then we only publish a small percentage of those.” I really have found the former to be a lot more valuable than the latter, but I understand every publication and every editor and every editorial board has different motivations.

Emily: I think it’s really interesting that you mentioned the role of the reader. When I initially was doing my intake survey for interview participants, I asked folks how they identified in relationship to the literature. Reader was an option, but very few people marked that box.

The experiences that have stuck with you as more positive are those where peer review is approached as developmental or a collaboration, where it’s like “we really want to support you to get your work out there because we see something good in it.” You contrasted that with journals where peer review is treated as the filter. Maybe there are people that do want to help you with it, but the approach of that help is different. So in your view what should peer review do and what should it actually be for?

I really think of peer review — even when it’s blind — I can’t think of a better word than mentorship.

So I guess I skew more toward peer review should be a formative feedback process. I think for those journals where it’s a weeding or filtering out process, I feel like it’s a summative evaluation. It’s a yes or no. Or, of course, there are revisions. “Give us some revisions and then we’ll think about it again, we’ll reconsider.” I’ve had some of those, too, where it’s like, “we request revisions.” I do the revisions and then they say, “No, we don’t think so.” It seems like maybe you could have told me that in the first place if that’s where you were going to go. I really think of peer review — even when it’s blind — I can’t think of a better word than mentorship. Because I feel like mentorship connotes this idea of, “I’m an older, sage, wise, experienced person with a more junior, less experienced learner.” I think as a peer reviewer, as an editor, as an author, as a reader I’m always learning.

No matter what side of the equation I’m on or what role I’m in. I think that a peer review process should be a learning opportunity, because even if an article is outside of the scope of a publication they can just say, “yeah, this is outside of scope.” But I even think then there are opportunities to say, “these kinds of resources or these kinds of publications may be a good place for an article on this topic.” That says nothing about whether there are issues with the writing or how the research is done or the contents of the actual article necessarily. When peer review is most valuable to me, it is something that allows people to learn and grow and develop. It doesn’t necessarily have to be toward some magical ideal of, “This is what an academic librarian who publishes peer review scholarship, this is what their writing looks like.” Because I feel like here are all kinds of places to share one’s work. It doesn’t have to necessarily be through scholarly, peer-reviewed, top-tier publications or what we would say “top tier” whatever that means. I think at least in our library, and I think in my institution, and I think in other conversations that I’ve heard or been a part of, I think we are getting to the point where peer reviewed isn’t necessarily always the most impactful or doesn’t connote the most value. When we talk about value, what are we valuing? Are we valuing that this person can write in the conventions that we ask them to write in that reinforce various power structures? Or are we saying we want someone whose work really has a community impact, or impacts our profession more generally or increases equity, diversity, and inclusion, or increases access to information, or increases access to ideas? I think I’m fortunate at my library to have a colleague who really pushes those ideas of alt-metrics, which is really not the right way to really describe it, but that idea of measuring the impact or the value of our scholarship in different ways. It doesn’t have to be a peer-reviewed journal that’s behind a pay wall. For example, it’s interesting that we’re talking about this today because I recently – I think it was in 2016 – I published an article. I published an article in Communications in Information Literacy with a colleague in 2016 or 2017, and that’s an open access publication. I have a Google Scholar citation alert set up, and I get so many notifications that dissertations, articles, publications from all over the place are citing that piece because people can find it. People all across the world and at all different kinds of institutions. It’s funny, my sister set up the same alert so she’ll send me emails like, “Why are you being cited by this Ukrainian article?” I feel like at a very, very fundamental basic level that, to me, is a case for more open information because I can say, “Oh yeah, this article, which was published—in my mind—in a very high quality journal that’s open, it can have much more of an impact because people are able to find it and their institutions don’t have to maintain subscriptions.”

I’m getting way into the weeds now. I’m taking about something completely different, but I feel like peer review should be a tool that helps us advance, progress, move forward our profession. The professionals within the profession helps all of us to develop, whether that’s someone on the editorial side who says, “Well, this is how I think writing should be.” That person should be able to learn and take a step back and check their privilege and say, “is that really true? Do I understand what this person is saying? Am I being nitpicky?” And in turn, authors should be able to say, “Okay, well I’m learning that this place is really focused on helping growth and development and this is the place where I want to be publishing, not this place where they’re just worried about their acceptance rates or their impact factor” or whatever.

Peer-reviewed might not even be the best thing depending on the topic, depending on the kinds of scholarship being shared or the kinds of information being shared.

But I think it goes up a level to our profession or leaders in our profession having an understanding and knowledge of and acceptance that peer-reviewed isn’t the only thing. Peer-reviewed might not even be the best thing depending on the topic, depending on the kinds of scholarship being shared or the kinds of information being shared. And that other ideas and other ways of sharing knowledge and information have value. They just don’t fit into our established power structures. I know at our institution I think we have such a chip on our shoulders as librarians about the master’s as the terminal degree. We don’t know how we’re doing scholarship. We don’t produce the same kind of scholarship that other people do. We don’t get the million-dollar grants that other people get, that we’re so focused on peer review that I think other ways of disseminating ideas sometimes get shortchanged. We have to go through the faculty review and promotion board, so we’ve got to make sure that we are up to snuff with everybody else. I think we are changing in some ways but I think that’s in part because we have people who are in digital humanities and doing things in GitHub and they’re like, “This should be considered valuable. This is my scholarly output.” These things fall outside of peer review but they still have a lot of impact and value and really advance both librarianship but also other disciplines as well. I don’t know if that really answers your question.

Emily: I think it is peer review when you sit down with your colleagues informally. One of the things that in my work with peer review and researching it—and I am an advocate for opening up peer review to be much more transparent—it’s those conversations that, for me, have always been so fruitful. And it’s the relationships with journals where their aim is to help you improve your work where it’s more collaborative. I guess that’s my approach. That’s what makes our work better, is being able to have that honest dialogue and with someone you know-or maybe not even know-but someone you trust and it can be a more human experience than the robots with no identity.

The last chapter of Amanda’s story will be published in the coming weeks.