How I Review: 2020 Edition

In 2020 I have decided to try to refine my reviews. The impetus for this is that I think I have greater clarity about what my role should be or more correctly what my role is not.

My wife once had an internship at a publishing company. Her job was to go through the bin of unsolicited submissions and be ruthless. The company could only publish a set number of books a year, and they solicited most of the books they published. Thus her role was to reject almost all submissions. I think many reviewers think they have this job too. Many reviewers also believe they are the defender of the purity of science. This is a role I used to play. I believed that my field was a disaster and only I could fix it by standing in the way of as many articles as I could. My aim was to expunge the various sins I saw my field committing. What hubris!

I no longer believe that is my role. Ultimately, I think the role of a reviewer is a) to detect fatal flaws (a flaw that no amount of revision would fix); b) to identify any fundamental issue that should prevent publishing of any type (e.g., plagiarism, etc.); and c) determine if the article would look out-of-place among other articles in the field.

Ultimately, the role of a reviewer is to catch malfeasance and monsters.

The role of determining the place of an articles position as important or impactful or paradigm shifting is held by readers.

With this refined sense of what a reviewer should be, I have aimed to introduce the following to my own reviews:

  1. My review distribution will become increasingly bi-modal focused on either outright rejection or acceptance/ minor conditional acceptance.
  2. When I reject, my reviews are short. I outline what I think the fatal flaw was and nothing more. If an article is unsalvageable, advising on how certain paragraphs should be phrased or how APA styling should have be handled is a waste of time and confusing to the authors. The language here should be clear. There is no “I think the authors should consider…” or “Have the authors thought of…”. I am also clear in the first sentence that I do not think the article should be accepted and that I do not believe a revision could resolve the fundamental flaws I see in the paper.
  3. If I give a recommendation of conditional acceptance, I am careful of distinguishing between the few things upon which I believe are the conditions of acceptance and areas I think might improve the article. I am clear that the latter are suggestions and the authors are free to ignore them. I then try to phrase these points as questions rather than commands.
  4. If an author refuses to adjust their article in relation to something I think they should adjust, and they give reasons that are not preposterous, I let it go. You have likely received a review from me if you read “I don’t agree with the authors’ position on this issue, but my job is not to make authors write the paper how I want it written. I suggest the paper move forward to publication.”

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