The hallmarks of good academic journal manuscript refereeing

A prominent professional philosophy journal invited me to referee a manuscript for their journal. Each time I agree to be a referee for a journal I always think there’s got to be good practices one should implement in completing the review. I have had too much experience receiving referee reports that seemed to me “too sloppy” to report back to the author. Here are a five tips referees ought to employ while reviewing a manuscript for a professional journal.

1. Don’t begin a report until you’ve got a clear understanding of the main argument of the paper. Journals have an interest in publishing papers with an original argument. Original arguments need not be clever or advance the field or sub-field in dramatic ways. Referees should hold in high regard arguments very narrowly focused on one topic and clearly articulated. If the referee cannot grasp the main argument of the paper, don’t immediately think that the paper is not worthy of publication. It’s entirely possible that you’re unable to comprehend the article’s main argument because you haven’t had the opportunity to really think through the paper itself or the implications such a paper might have on the profession. Anyone who’s quick to judge the value of a paper will likely err against the submission itself. This could do more harm than good for the author, for the manuscript, and ultimately for the journal itself. Referees ought to invest a good amount of time in reading and understanding the manuscript they’ve been invited to referee.

2. Don’t cruise the internet looking for the paper. I’ve heard several colleagues admit over the years that they searched the internet for the manuscript’s title when they received a journal submission to referee. Then, they judged that if the person was relatively new to the field or a graduate student, they would immediately reject the manuscript without ever reading it. This scenario occurs quite a lot unfortunately. The merits of the argument are overlooked because the manuscript’s author does not come from a top school or has been employed by a top school. Judging the value of a manuscript for a journal by the author’s pedigree (or lack thereof) fails to take the article seriously for reasons orthogonal to the merit of the submission. Refereeing for a journal is serious, and members of the profession rely upon them to make informed decisions about the value of the manuscript, not about the value of the education the author has received or the value of the school at which the author’s employed.

3. Don’t assume the author has complete background knowledge of subject. Referees ought not to assume that the author is an expert in every area and every sub-topic. Remember that authors have focused upon one narrowly conceived dimension of the discipline to become credentialed. An author might not even be aware of one sub-domain that’s related, though distantly so, to the topic of the paper. Referees are obliged to educate the author in such cases and — depending upon how central the sub-domain is — might have to reject the author’s submission. If, however, it’s a sub-domain relatively few people know about, some leniency should be afforded to the author.

4. Don’t be overly negative because of the bad experience you’ve had with professional journals. We’ve all had bad experiences with a journal. Whether it’s the journal editors taking too long to return manuscripts from referees or the referees employed by the journal seem ill-equipped to provide an adequate judgment about the manuscript. Get over it! We’ve all been there when we receive a referee report and think to ourself, “did the referee read my manuscript or mistake someone else’s for mine?” Referees should attempt to clear their mind before sitting down to read and to judge the worthiness of a manuscript.

5. Don’t judge the paper by whether you agree or disagree with its conclusion. This is probably the most important piece of advice of the five tips I’ve provided in this post. Referees should not judge that a paper is not worthy of publication because she disagrees with the paper’s conclusion. Too often I have seen referees decline papers because they disagree with the paper’s conclusion. They believe that their own view is correct, and anyone who disagrees with it is mistaken. Imagine that attitude in the late nineteenth century at Mind. Moore’s “Refutation of Idealism” might never have been published if that were the criterion some referees used. Disagreement is at the heart of the discipline, and we thrive on it. We should not shun others’ views because they disagree with our own. We ought to embrace these views, especially when the disagreement is so apparent and worthy of consideration. Rejecting a manuscript because the referee disagrees with its conclusion is pathetic and childish.

Overcome the urge to reject manuscripts submitted to professional journals for the above reasons, despite how difficult and how tall an order that might be.

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One thought on “The hallmarks of good academic journal manuscript refereeing

  1. Though there is a high degree of trust and veracity in medical publications, an occasional report of duplicate and salami publications bothers the medical fraternity. In recent years, there have been more than 100 cases of notices of duplicate or redundant publications in various journals. Byron Bailey, Editor, Archives of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, found that of 1000 authors chosen at random from his journal, 201 published 644 articles which could be labelled as duplicate [1] . During their work on impact of duplicate publication on meta-analysis, Tramer et al found that 17% of the manuscripts were covertly duplicated. [2] Similarly, during a meta-analysis on exogenous surfactant, Raju found 6 of 35 articles to contain overlapping data [3] .

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