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Reviewer 2 Who? Academic Reviewing as a Doctoral Student

(posted on behalf of @Sai Kalvapalle)

It’s mid-January as I write this, which means a lot of us doctoral students are coming up for air after a hectic conference submission period. What better way to recover from the holiday season than to push those manuscripts forward, and almost earn a separate doctorate in word count manipulation?  

There is a rule of thumb in (management) research now that I gathered at the last AOM ENT Doctoral Consortium: editors implore that for every manuscript you submit, you should review 3 manuscripts (because at least 3 others review your work). After all, peer review is founded upon the principles of collegiality, fairness, and equity. So, if you’re not reviewing, chances are someone else is reviewing a whole lot more than what is equitable.

But, I also get it – reviewing can be daunting for PhD students, particularly in the early years. It’s hard enough finding your voice and confidence to craft your own research identity, let alone feeling confident enough to critique someone else’s scholarship. However, reviewing is also a crucial way to develop yourself as a scholar, by honing your writing skills, staying up to date on the research in your community, and making a positive impact on someone else’s work that could potentially lead to a contribution to the field at large.

How do you write a good review? How do you provide developmental feedback to other scholars in your field? And, arguably what is most important—how do you get so good at it, that you can actually add value to the research community?

Like many other academic skills that are tacitly gained, no one explicitly tells you how to review, because there is no *one* way to review. But this shouldn’t act as a hindrance to wait to sign up as a reviewer until you are ready, because the field urgently needs bright, careful minds to develop one another’s work. Let me also pitch conference reviewing here as a gateway to journal reviewing (AOM, for example, is looking for reviewers for the 2023 conference. Sign up here).

The other reassuring thought is that you are likely never going to be the only person reviewing a given paper—so while it is important to be meticulous, there is safety in thinking about other reviewers and editors covering your blind spots (and you theirs).

First things first: when reviewing a paper, it is crucial to take into account where the author(s) are coming from. Essentially, reviewing is a major exercise in perspective-taking. As an outsider to the context and/or method and/or theoretical framework, your perspective can help authors access what they might have been too close to previously discover. Rule number 1: try to provide the authors with the ‘forest’ that you see and how to make improvements there (than the trees that they are probably quite familiar with). Getting into the nitty-gritty is likely not as valuable for the people who wrote the paper, and more often than not, it might mean that you are ‘writing their paper.’ Comments that holistically acknowledge where the paper is coming from and where it is going, and then providing advice based on that, will help move the field forward. Your task is ultimately not to set a new course for that paper to take, but to see where the authors are coming from and where they are trying to go, and within those bounds, identify potential ways for the paper to be strengthened.

The second, and perhaps most important rule is: if you identify a problem, you need to identify a solution. This is not to say that you need to write their paper for the authors; rather, thinking along with authors in tackling theoretical and methodological limitations lends credence to your criticism of their work in the first place. It’s (relatively) easy to identify problems; it is far harder to come up with solutions. We have all been there.

Now that we have a general sense of what to do in a review, let us look closer at how to do it. Professor Lisa Cohen offers some fantastic tips in a talk here. One that has resonated with me immensely is approaching a paper flexibly; no one says you need to read a paper in the order that sections are presented in. Jumping around is perfectly fine, but it is important to keep reading reflexively, and almost anticipate the next section (rule number three). Quite often, if I notice myself getting too caught up in the details, I notice it is because I haven’t identified what the paper is doing. If there are breaks in the red thread that connects each section, this is something that the authors would really benefit from knowing.

Professor Cohen also mentions something in her talk that I think is incredibly important but also incredibly difficult, particularly for junior scholars. I’m going to touch on imposter syndrome a little here, in charting a course for rule number four. Particularly in the early stages of an academic career, the obvious reaction to reading a difficult text is: am I not smart enough to understand this? But good writing, as I think we come to learn further along in the PhD/academic career, is about clear writing. The impulse to complicate our ideas with jargon, too many verbs, and intentionally difficult GRE vocabulary does nothing more than suggest that perhaps you (the writer) don’t understand what you are trying to convey. Therefore, don’t take it for granted that you cannot keep up with the concepts and ideas that you read in a paper because they are too complex, but identify where more concept clarity is needed, what the basis of each argument is, and whether the paper adequately answers the basic ‘so what?’ question in each section. It is ultimately the authors’ job to present their ideas clearly and convincingly.

Finally, I want to leave you with a few words of caution. I recently saw some fellow academics on Twitter express regret about the overly critical reviews they wrote in early stages of their career. Perhaps this was due to enthusiasm, or overly compensating for imposter syndrome-related concerns, but either way, it’s not nice and it’s not necessary. As Dr. Maja Korica articulates in this important treatise: “If the baseline expectations of fit and rigour are met, our job is to developmentally aid the authors. It’s not to rewrite the paper to serve our own purposes, or to kick it out as a way of unquestioningly reproducing some spurious notion of ‘excellence’. Review and edit generously.”

What would you add to these tips on reviewing? Are there any experiences you have had that would be useful for other doctoral students to learn from?