Peer Review Week at AJPS: Better Late than Never (Just like Reviews!)

By the AJPS Editorial Team

Who knew that September 10-15 was “Peer Review Week,” a celebration held in honor of the essential role of peer review in the academy and scholarly publications? We didn’t, until the week-long celebration was nearly over. Nonetheless, we made it a memorable week on the AJPS reviewer front by updating the “reviewer guidelines” at www.ajps.org. Please take a quick look at those details before submitting your next review.

Here, we offer some additional thoughts about doing reviews. Doing reviews often feels like a thankless task, one that takes time away from the more pressing matters in academic life. But we are keenly aware that, without able and willing reviewers, the entire peer-review enterprise would collapse. While some of these comments reflect our take on reviews and reviewing, we suspect that they might be shared by other editors in the discipline.

Why should I review? Participating in the peer review of research articles contributes to your scholarly community. It is a way to keep abreast of new ideas and new approaches. It offers an opportunity to use the expertise you’ve developed, via years of study and authoring papers, to advance our collective knowledge. And if the collective, altruistic view of reviewing doesn’t strike a chord, then how about this: it’s a great way to learn something—about substance, method or writing, to name a few.

For whom should I review? Many of us receive more review requests than we could ever accept, and sometimes from journals that seem a bit outside of our usual purview. Review for the journals where you want to publish, and for the journals you regularly read. Reviewing for and publishing in more general journals allows you to have a voice in the leading scholarship in your field. And whatever the impact factor, reviewing for more specialized journals usually shifts the focus to greater in-depth material and may benefit your own work even more.

How many reviews should I do? People sometimes don’t have a sense of how often they should review. Often Editorial Board members are expected to review more than others; we try to not ask for reviews from others more than a couple times a year. But it varies a lot, both here at AJPS and at other journals, and we as a discipline don’t coordinate on counting up the number of reviews across journals (although Publons may help a tiny bit with this). Data on the peer review process suggests that the burden of reviewing is unevenly distributed. In fact, one reason reviewers decline our invitations is that our “ask” has arrived when the potential reviewer already has committed to reviewing multiple papers, and they can’t add ours to the list.

Some editors like to remind their colleagues that, if they are getting three reviews every time they submit a piece, then they need to be doing three times their number of journal submissions/re-submissions in a given year. At AJPS, we now ask anyone who submits an article to commit to doing two reviews during the coming year. We appreciate that review requests sometimes come at inopportune times (whether or not you have other review commitments in line ahead of AJPS). In other cases, potential reviewers do not feel as expert as they might like. We (and most) editors appreciate why reviewers may need to decline in these situations. But every editor loves it when a declined reviewer invitation is accompanied by suggestions of potential alternate reviewers. Our reviewer database is a work in progress, and we certainly do not know people in every nook and cranny of the profession. Adding new reviewers to our database is critical to the editorial process, so making reviewer recommendations is incredibly helpful. You might also think of making recommendations as an opportunity to share the love with your friends, colleagues, and co-authors!

Why was I invited to review? The peer review process is one that is premised on expertise: you are invited to review because the editors believe you have the expertise to evaluate the argument, claims, and methods used in the paper. That said, you may not be an expert on every aspect, and do not need to address each of these aspects. You can focus your comments on the issues you believe to be most important as a basis for making a recommendation. Often editors will invite reviewers who have published research on similar—but not the same exact—questions to provide some diversity across reviewers. This is especially true at less specialized journals, where editors might want to know what scholars in the same subfield—but with different research expertise—think about the paper’s argument, importance, or potential (broader) impact.

What if I know who the author is? Convey this information to the editorial office immediately. It is helpful to explain for how long, and in what capacity, you have known the author and how you know the paper. Some editors will immediately release you from the review invitation (and appreciate being able to do this); others will judge whether the circumstances are sufficiently compromising that they need to find another reviewer. Or the editors may ask the invited reviewer to complete the review if they feel that they can offer an unbiased, serious review independent of knowing the author’s identity.

What if I’ve reviewed the manuscript for another journal? Convey this information to the editorial office as well. Many editors will leave the decision up to the reviewer; some will release you from the review. The basic principle here is that the reviewer and editor should be in agreement as to whether doing the review is the right thing.

What should I include in the review? Many journals will describe what they want in a review when they invite you, or post these details on the journal’s website. Oftentimes this comes in a series of questions that might structure the review: what is the paper’s theoretical motivation? Its theoretical or empirical contribution? Is the method appropriate to question? How persuasive is the empirical evidence? Is the author’s interpretation of the evidence accurate? Is it appropriate? What are the paper’s strength and weaknesses? Can the weaknesses be addressed? While providing a summary of the paper (from a few sentences to a lengthier paragraph) can help set the stage for the review, the more important details are your answers to the questions posed by the editors.

In addition, if you are really impressed by a paper, please tell us why. Sometimes reviewers are quicker to criticize than to praise. While we understand (and often share) that urge, keep in mind that we are seeking reasons to accept or advance a piece, as well as reasons to decline it. If you love a manuscript, don’t be afraid to advocate for it. You may find this piece, written by Sara Mitchell (an AJPS Editorial Board member) to be useful.

Will the editor follow my recommendation? Sometimes they will; sometimes they won’t. At most journals, reviews are advisory to the editor. And it is important to remember that, regardless of the time invested in the review, the editor has more information than what any single reviewer has. She knows who the members of the review panel are and what their review histories are (some reviewers inflate their grades, whereas others do not!). She also often receives private “to the editor” comments from reviewers, which sometimes emphasize certain points made in the review. Moreover, the editor sees reviews for dozens or even hundreds of manuscripts per year. While each manuscript decision is dependent on the reviews that are submitted, the editors have some experience to assess what good and bad reviews look like; and what a reasonable amount of work for a revision would be.

With all that said… We now declare this week as Peer Review Week at AJPS! So send in those reviews (early, late or on deadline). And take a few minutes to update your contact details and research interests in our Editorial Manager database, so that we know how (and for what) to invite you to review. If you do not have an existing Editorial Manager profile and want to review, begin one—and send along your C.V. to the editorial office at ajps@mpsanet.org so we can learn more.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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