The Qualities of Good Peer Review

We asked our editors, reviewers, and authors, "What are the qualities of good peer-review feedback?" Here's what they told us.

The most useful peer review feedback I've received focuses on the strengths of the piece and how to draw on those strengths to improve the text. I think this requires trying to understand the authors' intentions and helping the author realize their goals, rather than taking the piece in a different direction or projecting your own "ideal text" onto the author's work. Starting the review by summarizing your understanding of the piece and what you see as the strengths of the piece is one way to avoid wrestling control of the text from the author. Another strategy for negotiating the tensions between your advice for the text and the author's intent is to differentiate between baseline revisions you feel are necessary for the piece to be successful and revisions that you believe would help improve the piece but might not be taken up by the author if they feel that it takes the piece in a different direction. There are certainly situations where major revision might be needed, and this might entail rethinking the research questions or methods or scope. But even if major revisions are needed, these revisions can spring from the existing strengths and vision of the writing.

I think tone is a very important consideration when responding to a colleague. We don't want to deflate the writer or devalue the work by providing overwhelmingly negative feedback, and we should use a tone that is honest but also professional and respectful to a colleague who has worked hard and will value our feedback if further revisions are needed. Confidential peer review is valuable, but we should never use anonymity as an excuse to belittle a colleague's draft or deploy a tone that we wouldn't use if we were speaking with the author face-to-face. Even if you feel major revisions are needed, or the writing is not of the quality you would look for in a publishable piece of scholarship, the goal is to encourage the author to continue working on the piece.

– Dan Melzer, University of California Davis
Emeritus Member, WAC CLearinghouse Editorial Board and Editorial Staff

Good peer-review feedback can best be thought of as feed-"forward": It does not simply rebound on an author, but it renews an author's energy and investment in their project, giving them the momentum they need to continue thinking about, pushing through, and laboring with their project. This feed-"forward" is perhaps best done when a peer reviewer approaches a project with openness — as in, seeking to open possibilities/directions for the project instead of pinning down its problems/solutions. As you collect your concerns and misunderstandings for a project, consider how you might frame those comments as questions that would encourage an author to interact more deeply with their own work. If you have concrete suggestions, consider listing multiple ways forward so the author can consider what paths would best meet their goals for the project.

The Believing-Doubting Game is obviously one that ensures you're giving balanced feedback (never forget that authors need to know what's working just as much as they need to know what's not working as they head into revision). However, instead of thinking of "believing" and "doubting" as separate responses, allow your belief to shape how you doubt: If you approach a peer review task already believing in the project's efficacy, then you can more carefully detail what you still need to know, see, understand, and connect so others might believe, too. Importantly, this ensures you are asking questions or listing suggestions that are in service of what the author is trying to argue as opposed to what you think they should argue.

And finally, be generous in your reader response: Simply repeating in your own words what you think the author is arguing and how the argument is being made can be as helpful as asking questions or listing suggestions. And then what's not quite connecting with you yet? Where are you getting lost? Where did you see an opportunity for this other body of scholarship to clarify a point? Frame those responses from your own standpoint — "I wasn't quite sure about the move from X to X..." and "I had a hard time on pg. 7 because..." and "I did wonder if X would be useful for the discussion here since...." This approach clarifies to an author how their project is unfolding and landing for a reader without crushing their exploration and momentum. Collectively taken, these strategies — asking probing questions, offering multiple suggestions, and responding as a reader — provide the author space to see their work's potential and productively wrestle with how to best reach it.

– Alisa Russell, Wake Forest University
Member, WAC Clearinghouse Editorial Board