On reviewing: An alternative to the gate-keeping, standards-upholding, highlight-weaknesses model

An alternative to the gate-keeping, standards-upholding, highlight-weaknesses model of reviewing is to set out to help the writer improve.  To this end, reviewers can:

1. begin with a summary of  what the author(s) said, or, filling in between the lines, what they almost said.  (This show the author(s) their voice has been heard and reflects back to them where they were taking the reader.)

2. then make specific suggestions for how to clarify and extend the impact on readers of what was written. (The message to the author(s) is that they can  use the eye of others to develop their own thinking and make it work better on readers.)

3. end, if required, with the judgement of publish, revise, or reject for this outlet.  (Given #1 & #2, a negative decision on publication is not rejection as much as support for further development.)

After letting reviewers’ comments sink in, the author(s) may conclude that the reviewer has missed their point. In that case, the misreading may stimulate the author(s) to revise so as to help readers avoid mistaking the intended point.  However, written comments have definite limitations when writers and readers want to appreciate and learn from what each other is saying and thinking.  If the author(s) do not understand the directions the reviewer saw in their work or those suggested for a revision, a one-on-one conversation is needed.  Yet this is not possible–unless the reviewer signs the review and offers to engage in this way.

This model of reviewing is consistent with an approach to life that says let’s do the best we can to help others do the best work they can in their (usually constrained) circumstances.  (This is a stronger principle than the golden rule.)  I wonder if reviewing according to the gate-keeping, standards-upholding, highlight-weaknesses model makes any reviewer feel good.

Acknowledgement: Keith Hjortshoj of the Writing Program at Cornell University introduced me to #1 and #2 in the context of commenting on student work (see http://cct.wikispaces.umb.edu/dialoguearoundwrittenwork).

Postscript:  I knew that Brian Martin in signing his reviews cites research on the negative effects of anonymous reviewing.  After writing this blog post, I located an article by him that not only explains that practice, but also, with more detail and eloquence, proposes the same approach to reviewing as given above, except that Brian omits #3 altogether and leaves the decision to the editor; see http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/08jspwhrr.html.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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