Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is in: Juggling Review Requests

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Look here to find previous advice columns from The Professor Is In.

When I am asked to peer review articles for scholarly journals, how do I know which ones — and how many of the requests — to say yes to?

For a freshly minted Ph.D., it can be flattering to suddenly start receiving requests from journal editors to be a peer reviewer. It feels like an acknowledgement of your expertise, always welcome to academics who endemically suffer from impostor syndrome. It's all too easy to take on more review assignments than is wise.

Please understand this point above all: A book review in a journal is not a journal publication! Just because you’ve managed to get the name of the flagship journal in your field onto your CV — by writing a book review — does not mean you can claim that you’ve “published” in the flagship journal.

Journal editors are always looking for fresh blood because good reviewers are hard to find. One of the most challenging aspects of an editor’s job is lining up reviewers (and then emailing them regular reminders to get their review in, even as the authors are emailing the editor to find out how much longer it will be).

Here's the thing: Peer review is still service. It is service to the profession — rather than to the department or the institution — but it is service, and has to be weighted accordingly in the impossible math of the tenure-track economy today.

My party line on service is as follows: It’s problematic as a form of labor that is not compensated, and it routinely exploits female and minority faculty. It is always valued less than research at research-oriented universities, and is generally valued less than teaching at teaching-heavy colleges. You do need to show you are a good citizen of your institution and of your profession. But you need to be careful to allocate the absolute bare minimum of your time to it as long as you are pre-tenure (tenure-seeking or tenure-track).

When it comes to department or university service, people will generally let you know where your “volunteering” is not optional. When it comes to peer review, however, it can be more difficult to figure out when to click accept and when to click decline. Here are some rules and considerations.

  • Patronage and obligations. There may be peer-review requests you cannot — and should not — say No to. That includes reviews for journals edited by your mentor, or by that discussant on your conference panel who invited you to give a talk on her campus and whom you are trying to cultivate to write you a letter of recommendation. Basically there will always be senior academics with whom you will have a Godfather-ish relationship, and if they are journal editors, you say yes when they ask you to be a reviewer. If my use of “Godfather” makes this work sound unseemly, it really isn’t; it’s just part of the quid pro quo on which all solid professional relationships are built.
  • Disciplinary versus interdisciplinary. It is better to write reviews for journals in your discipline than for interdisciplinary ones. One of the meager substantive benefits of being a peer reviewer is that it's a way to show senior accomplished scholars in your field that you have smart things to say. Then they can keep you in mind if they need an extra person for a roundtable. And knowing them may come in handy when you are making a list of external reviewers for your tenure case.
  • Prestige. You will probably not be asked to contribute reviews to the top journals in your field right away. But once you are, say Yes. Ideally being a peer reviewer for a journal should give you some sense of what that journal is looking for (through reviewer forms and communications with the editor) and of what gets accepted, and with what kinds of modifications. Since you want to publish in top journals, those are the ones you want to learn about. Down the road you may want to end up on the editorial board of one of the flagship journals in your discipline. The mechanisms by which editorial board members are tapped vary but being a diligent and enthusiastic reviewer is seen favorably for those purposes.
  • You want the book. Honestly, this isn’t really a great reason to write a book review. Think about the value of your time.

As for the quantity question, here is another important point: Pick a specific number of reviews that you will do each year, and stick to that number.

Some people will do only one or two a year. Make your own call depending on how long it takes you to write reviews. I strongly suggest that early-career scholars do no more than three a year. Period. Make sure you factor in any Godfather requests you anticipate having to say yes to. Once you are done, do not accept any more. Cultivate a professional but firm way of saying No (women, this goes double for you!) and feel free to say something like “I have already done several reviews this year, and right now I am concentrating on my own article/book.”

I should mention that there is a widely shared idea that it is good form to write reviews for journals that publish your research. I agree with that in principle, although I think the obligation of acting in such “good form” is more on tenured professors than on untenured ones.

Finally, when you write the review, make sure you do it well. A good review balances praise with constructive critical evaluation. Don’t stray too far either into encomium or complaint. Your field and journal will have professional norms and standards but for a basic primer on book reviews, read my earlier column on the subject.

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