PEER REVIEW WITH KINDNESS

If I could characterise the past couple of months in a couple of words, it would be this:-

Peer Review

I got an article returned to me, accepted pending revisions, a few weeks ago.  One review was fair and balanced.  The other one was harsh but fair … until the end.  Getting into their stride, the reviewer declared I was ignorant of a language (because of the way I’d referenced something), and wrote like a newspaper journalist.  Owch.  I put the reviews to one side and did nothing.  No response, and no revisions.  Finally I was ready to summon the courage to re-read the reviews, write a grateful, gracious but assertive response, and schedule some time to start revising.  (I’d intended to begin this evening, but the time got eaten into in other ways, so … well, maybe tomorrow.)

Then I was asked to review a book proposal.  This came as a bit of a bolt out of the blue,  but I was delighted to have the opportunity to read about this particular subject.  I did the review on a long train journey, and the time really flew by.

Yesterday, I had a request to comment on a peer-reviewed article.  It wasn’t a big ask, so I dealt with it straight away.  And then this evening, I had another of my own articles accepted, pending revisions.  What a difference!  Rather than the demolition job I’d received from the earlier critic, these reviewers were fair and kind.  Certainly, there are slight revisions to make, but they were couched in a way to which no-one could take offence.

It set me wondering why peer-reviewers can’t all be like that?  I have no problem with constructive criticism.  The readers have kindly given their time to read our work and write a response to it, and if they’ve noticed a flaw or omission that I haven’t considered, then I’m grateful to have this pointed out to me.  I want my ultimate articles to be as good as possible.  But why would a reviewer want to be unneccessarily damning?  Is it because they feel superior, or do they feel threatened?

I once had a reviewer wonder whether I knew anything about music.  Clearly I hadn’t allowed my three music degrees to shine through!  This time my linguistic ability is questioned.  It was only a careless slip in following referencing style guidelines.  And then there’s the journalistic jibe.  Do you know what?  That’s a compliment, as far as I’m concerned.  I’ve published in all sorts of places, and before I had our three sons, I published thirty odd short stories and a serial into the bargain.  When one of my doctoral examiners said I made the individuals I was writing about “really come alive”, I reflected privately that my fiction-writing had clearly had a positive effect when it came to writing hard facts, too.

At the age of sixteen or seventeen, I wanted to be a journalist.  Three things make me happy above all others, all creative: writing, arranging music, or sewing.  To have been a music critic would have been a dream come true, but things didn’t turn out quite that way.  I do still write about music, though!  And in these days where public engagement is a vital part of the academic life, having an approachable style is surely an asset rather than something to be ashamed of.

Whoops!  I began a sentence with “And” just then.  As Bloody Mary sang in South Pacific, “Well, ain’t that too damn bad?!”  It’s artistic licence.  If Vaughan Williams and Sibelius can get away with consecutive fifths and octaves in their harmonic writing, then I feel no compunction about a provocative conjunction in my written English!

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