Peer Reviewing & Book Reviews

Up until now we’ve taken a closer look at presenting, teaching, writing and editing, and, staying within the realm of publishing, in this post we turn to two final aspects of this area: the challenges of acting as a peer reviewer and of writing book reviews. It is likely that you will have a chance to do the latter before you are invited to be the former, simply because in order to be selected as a potential peer reviewer for an academic journal, your name not only needs to be known (or at least findable) within your field but it is also expected that you have penned and published peer-reviewed work yourself. Book reviews, however, are something which postgraduates are often asked to write early on in their academic careers, and it is for this reason that I want to start with some thoughts on this process before finishing with some notes on being a peer-reviewer.

 

BOOK REVIEWS

Book reviews are a useful way of obtaining a free copy of a new book in your field and of gaining and sharing insights into its arguments and their relevance as you carry out your research for your own work. However, here are some things to take into account before you agree to write a review:

– Are you qualified to review this book? Does it fall within your area of expertise?
– For what kind of publication are you reviewing the book?
– If you have published book reviews before, do you really need to take on another?
– Remember that book reviews are a nice line or two on your CV and *may* give you some contacts, but that’s it.
– No one will hire you because you’ve published five or ten reviews, and none of your own research.
– Reviews of creative works are slightly different here; though, again, they do not equal a research publication.

Once you have taken these issues into account and are planning on publishing a book review, it’s worth considering some of the following (very basic and general) thoughts:

– Reviewing a book doesn’t mean ripping it to pieces.
– Be respectful and only write what is professional.
– Would what you write be ok with you if it was your book.
– Remember that giving a critical perspective on the content is only part of the job.
– Readers will normally also want to know the facts, i.e. what the book does.
– Summarise what issues/ texts/ writers/ debates it addresses and what its structure is.
– As with any feedback, highlight the positives and the negatives.
– What is original about the book’s contribution to the field?
– What omissions are there, and there justifiable reasons for those omissions?
– If you do not share the author’s opinion, remember it is not your job to disprove the author in your review.
– Highlight that a particular opinion is problematic or contrasts with other work in the area.
– Your professionalism counts in all realms, including social media.
– Do not make disrespectful comments about the book or author via social media.
– The author will be given the opportunity to respond to your review; be prepared for and mindful of this.

So, overall, a good book review – in my opinion – provides readers with both a summary and critical commentary, while situating the book within current debates in its field(s) and highlighting the aspects the publication successfully discusses as much as those which it does not (successfully) address. No matter your career stage – doctoral student, early-career researcher, senior lecturer, or professor – never lose your humility and professionalism. Bitterness and scathing comments usually reflect much more on the insecurities or self-perception of the author than on the publication that is being reviewed. If you’re interested, do take a look at the book review I have written for Contemporary Women’s Writing, and let me know if I’ve adhered to my own rules or not!

 

PEER REVIEWING

The obvious difference between a book review and a peer review is that the latter is not intended for publication, though it will, usually, of course still be seen by the author whose essay you review. The following are some basic thoughts on writing a constructive peer review, but bear in mind conventions may vary from discipline to discipline. As I’m writing this, my phone is flashing up with an email from our wonderful and efficient editorial assistant at the Journal of Gender Studies, reminding me that I’m late with the delivery of my peer-review report. So as you will see a few lines down, I don’t always heed my own advice!

– Being a peer reviewer will look good on your CV. It marks you out as a respected specialist in your field.
– Always check you have time to do the review. Do not promise what you can’t deliver.
– Keep the editorial contact up to date if you are late with your review.
– Remember how horrible it is to wait forever for reports on your own work!
– When reviewing the submission, ensure you follow the journal’s guidelines.
– Are you expected to annotate the manuscript or will a report suffice?
– Be constructive, specific and respectful in your comments rather than vague and condescending.
– Highlight the positive as well as negative aspects of submission.
– Be clear in your review: what are the areas that need to be addressed by the author and how?
– Read the guidelines before making your recommendation.
– How does the journal define “minor revisions”, for example?
– Familiarise yourself with the journal and its remit – this will inevitably influence your decision.
– If despite an anonymous submission you know the author, let the editorial contact know and refuse the review.
– If you are unsure about your decision, discuss this with the editor; they will usually be happy to help.

Overall, I can confidently say that editing and reviewing other people’s work is the most helpful aspect of my job when it comes to my own writing. Unless you are woefully ignorant and arrogant, it is impossible to look at your own writing as you did before you started commenting on other people’s bad writing habits. See the opportunity to be a peer reviewer both as a boost for your CV and as a help with your own work. Postgraduate journals can provide the perfect starting point for your peer-review activities and they are often looking for names to add to their list of regular reviewers in certain fields. Contact them and let them know you would be happy to help out if required. Hopefully, once a piece you have reviewed has been published, you’ll feel just as pleased as you do when your own work makes it into the public realm.

I hope that with this post – and in combination with those of the past weeks – we have now addressed most of the aspects of academic publishing, and it’s time to move back into the realm of conferences. As you may remember, my first two posts considered how to give a good conference paper, but next week I want to move on to a bigger – if very different – task: how to organise a successful conference. “Order in Chaos” seems a fitting title for this upcoming post, and I hope you’ll join me in my ramblings on the subject. As yet, I’m not quite sure whether it will be the product of healthy reflection on or traumatic revisiting of my experiences as a conference organiser, so watch this space and check in next week. Until then, as always, thanks for reading, and share and comment generously!

Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research covers the literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the Victorian widow (Liverpool University Press, 2018), and is leading War Widows' Stories, a participatory research and oral history project on war widows in Britain.

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