Involving MA students in the peer review process
Jamie Wood, Director of Teaching Learning for the School of History & Heritage writes:
Over the years I’ve been asked to review quite a few manuscripts of books by academic publishers. I enjoy doing this because it’s interesting to see new work before it’s published and (hopefully) to contribute to improving it a bit. Often there are free books as a form of compensation! So it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary when in 2017 I was asked to review a book on medieval history for Sidestone Press, a publisher in the Netherlands.
This time I thought that it would be interesting to involve students in the process of reviewing the manuscript. As I was teaching an enthusiastic MA group at the time I decided to ask if they would like to join in the reviewing process. Three of them took me up on the offer and engaged with the process of reviewing the book. This was not part of a module or done for credit, but I believe was a really useful way of getting the students to think critically about what they were reading and to consider how academic publications come into being through a process of review and revision.
As the book we were reviewing was an edited volume (a collection of essays by different authors which an editor, or editors, have put together on a specific topic), we decided that the best way to proceed would be to look at three chapters per meeting, over four weeks. Each of the students took a lead on reading and then presenting back their thoughts on a different chapter. This meant that they didn’t have to read everything if they didn’t have time. I read all of the chapters and took notes. These then formed the basis of the review that I wrote later in 2017.
As I said earlier, from my perspective this was a really good way of getting higher-level students to think more critically about academic writing and making them feel more like part of the academic community. I asked the students for their feedback, which suggests that they each got something positive from the process:
– ‘I definitely found helping to review the book extremely helpful. Looking at other people’s work and picking up on things that needed changing has given me a much clearer idea of what I need to look for an be critical of in my own work. […] reviewing the work in the way we did really made me look at the essays in a different and more analytical way, which will be hugely useful when I am editing and analysing my own work, in particular my dissertation.’
– ‘I was curious as to how the process of reviewing academic work took place. In the end I developed […] skills […] including; how to critically view sentence structures, the importance of language in text and the ability to look past the context of academic work and examine how it is written. These skills have helped me not only when reading secondary material but in my own work allowing me to critically analyse my own writing. […] it also helped me with my confidence in my own writing, as it allowed me to see unpublished work and therefore mistakes that even highly academic individuals can make, causing me to be less harsh on myself.’
– ‘It was reassuring to see that ‘professional’ papers are rarely ready to be published straight away. Getting involved in this editing process emphasised the importance of drafting and re-drafting! It has also changed the way I read articles for my own research. I now consciously acknowledge a paper’s structure, argument and use of source material instead of solely focusing on the conclusions it draws.’
While this was an informal initiative and was largely dependent on the opportunity created by the review request, it would be interesting to explore other ways of enabling students to see how academic work is reviewed. Karsten Wentink from Sidestone Press, had the following to say:
– ‘Finding reviewers is often quite a hassle. People are busy, do not have time, especially for something that is done in anonymity and for which they do not receive academic credits. This is a problem since all academics are supposed to publish peer-reviewed books and papers, but this in effect means that even more books and papers need to be reviewed (given the fact that we need several reviewers for one book, and not all manuscripts are accepted). To overcome this “problem” we suggested a manner of review that is beneficial to the reviewer as well. In this case we suggested that the reviewer would perform the review together with his students. This exercise should perhaps be part of wider discussion on the future of academic publishing. If academics are expected to publish peer-reviewed books and papers, it is of crucial importance that those same academics are also involved in performing peer-reviews. These are the fuel that keep the academic publishing-machine turning. Since they are of vital importance to academia they should be credited as such, and also students should be made familiar with this aspect of academic work.’
As the students noted, this has potentially positive benefits for their writing skills, their knowledge of new subjects and their understanding of academic research and communication. As the review process is ‘blind’, I’m can’t tell you which book it was, but it has since been published, hopefully our comments went some way towards improving the final product!