Join six editors of history journals and university presses as they reflect on what makes for an effective peer review assessment of an article or book manuscript. They will also consider what constitutes a ‘bad’ review, including what some call “Reviewer #2”.
On December 9, the CHA had the great fortune to host its fourth professional development workshop of the year, entitled “How to Write an Effective Journal or Book Manuscript Peer Review? And How to Avoid Being the Infamous ‘Second Reviewer.’” Chaired by Amanda Ricci, the panel included Robert Teigrob (Canadian Journal of History), Catherine Desbarats (Canadian Historical Review), Léon Robichaud (Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française), Belinda Dodson (Canadian Journal of African Studies), Len Husband (University of Toronto Press) and Kyla Madden (McGill-Queen’s University Press). A large audience was also able to contribute to the discussion, bringing forward their perspectives and engaging in dynamic exchanges with each panelist.
One of the main themes that emerged was how to write a good peer review. If there is one piece of advice that guides writing, it is this: write an evaluation that you would like to receive yourself. We should never forget the time and effort that the author of an article or manuscript has put into his or her work; an evaluation that is not geared toward constructive feedback is likely to have a significant emotional impact that is not desirable. To this end, an empathetic culture is increasingly being built around evaluation, which is first and foremost an opportunity to improve a preliminary work. One way to avoid this problem is to work in two stages: first read the article or manuscript, then set it aside and return to it later to write the evaluation. This way, it is easier to formulate and summarize your main ideas.
Two features of evaluations are particularly appreciated. One is to be specific in your comments so the author can make precise and targeted corrections. Without having the task of reviewing the quality of the language, a reviewer can indicate to the journal whether a piece of work needs its language revised. On the other hand, one must be “objectively subjective,” that is, to attempt to acknowledge one’s own subjectivity in order to properly contextualize one’s comments. The purpose of the review is to suggest improvements, not to change the article as if it had been written by the reviewer.
Consideration should also be given to the mandate of the journal or publisher to which the article or manuscript was submitted. A review should always ensure that the work is relevant to its place of publication. In doing so, it is helpful to consult the guidelines that the journal or publisher provides when writing a review. They are as useful to the reviewer as they are to the publisher. The publisher also appreciates it when the reviewer is able to respond quickly when asked, whether in the affirmative or the negative. This allows the evaluator to adjust and allows the process to run its course. When faced with an unforeseen situation, the evaluator can always ask for an extension or a delay to facilitate his task.
In order to make the link between the author of the article or manuscript and the reviewer, the steering committee of the journal or publishing house plays a fundamental role. Léon Robichaud shared with us his experience with the Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, where the committee is made up of members with different backgrounds. The committee is responsible for accompanying all the actors involved in the evaluation process, to clarify or mitigate any questions or criticisms. The Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française attaches to the evaluation reports a long message to the author to summarize and explain the suggested modifications. In this way, evaluation is a broad process shared by multiple stakeholders.
As the panelists pointed out, this workshop was an opportunity to finally recognize the work of evaluation, which is often done anonymously and invisibly, while being essential to the production of knowledge. It is an important and complex collective work, but its ramifications are fundamental. Belinda Dodson reminded us that it is the way we preserve academic standards. Every researcher therefore benefits from being aware of how good peer review works and its characteristics, for the benefit of themselves and their academic community.
The recording of the workshop is now available on the CHA YouTube channel.