Sunday, May 06, 2007

Random thoughts on reviewing

(I'm quite tired. This may ramble or fail to make sense. Sorry about that.)

It’s not mean enough, I pouted as I went through my notes on this paper I am to review.
For some reason, I think one way to exert my expertise is to rip someone else apart. This is difficult to do when I am hardly knowledgeable in the field in which a paper is written. (It’s probably doesn’t speak well of me that I misspell ‘knowledgeable’ each time I type it. I would like to leave out the ‘e’ at the end of ‘knowledge.’ I don’t know why.)

But how do I know if someone is qualified to write a review? Is the material representative of what’s available in the literature? Is the paper worthwhile? I don’t really know if the authors are well-recognized – they’re not in my field. I haven’t read any of the literature until I started searching for articles in the paper. I don’t feel comfortable judging whether this is worthwhile at all!

Yet I can read. I do know science and clinical literature. I’m familiar with the disease, though not in terms of these methods. As I read through the paper, there were parts that I learned from and parts that were poorly-written and rather useless. I recognize that and can direct attention to the sections that most need it. I can also compliment the elegance of transitioning from one topic to the next.

I think there are a few types of reviewers. I’ve had little enough experience to divide them into two categories. As a reviewer, I therefore call you some combination of swear words or I would like to buy you presents for being so lovely. I think there’s a difference – a vast difference – between someone who attacks work they clearly don’t understand and someone who carefully examines the paper to understand the problem and offers ideas on how to improve the explanation thereof. Do I seek to soothe my ego by convincing myself people write crap? Or do I give compliments where I feel they are due and propose some idea of how to improve the sloppy paragraphs?

It’s difficult to write something, I think. Though I’ve never attempted a review, I hardly think my academic standing should aid or prevent a good document from being published. If one knows the literature and can present a helpful synopsis of relevant points, more power to you. My book chapter attempts to do a bit of that and it’s hard. What to include, what to mention, what to only cite. It takes time and energy to decide what to explain and what to reference in hopes that someone will do some extra searching if they require additional detail. It’s not a quick or easy process.

I didn’t review papers for Advisor. I don’t do so for Boss either. They both preferred to participate fully in the process. I feel a bit on my own, though I think they both tend toward the ‘how nice!’ end of the scale. The interest is more on making good work better. But even in the cases of crappy papers, I think there’s a difference between offering demoralizing criticism and constructive critiques.

It’s incredibly frustrating for me when people berate me for not answering questions when they could have found the answer by reading the full paper. I realize that it’s a chance to improve the clarity and organization of my writing, but still. There’s also no reason to include comments like, “What?” or “Really?” or “No!” That’s stuff I scrawled on this paper, but as I type out comments for the authors, I’ll try to figure out why I was confused or bothered. When dealing with revisions, it’s easier for me to have a specific task. Change this wording or organize this paragraph, do another experiment, calculate this particular statistic. Those are things I can do. “No!” doesn’t help me. Other than to come up with some inventive insult to call that reviewer.

So as I frown over my lack of harsh criticism, perhaps I’m just reading a good paper. Either that or I’m an overly-kind reviewer. But those are nice to catch sometimes, right?

1 comment:

Kristi said...

Reviewing is weird. My mentors always talked about how in the field of history, new profs usually start out doing reviews, etc. If you're a new prof, how do you know when you are qualified to do a review??

Working in publishing, we live and breathe by reviews--though they're never good enough. If a review is good, you wonder if it's genuine. If it's bad, you wonder if there is some sort of rivalry between the reviewer and the one being reviewed.

I guess with experience, things get clearer. Or, everyone does a good job of hiding their insecurites.

Post a Comment