Saturday, December 1, 2012

Question for readers: reviewing manuscripts for journals

Last week I received a request to review a manuscript for a journal, and for the first time, I had to think for a few days whether to accept it or not. Not that I receive requests every day, but I've had my share.

I've only declined an invitation twice. The first one, because it was an article on, let's say, a Costa Rica author from the 1940s (not real decade nor country, but the analogy applies very well). I don't think I ever read a book by a writer of such nationality, let alone from the 1940s, so I was obviously unqualified to be a reviewer. The second time I declined, it was an article on Borges. Just because I'm from Argentina and do research on Argentine literature doesn't mean I can judge the merits of an article on Borges. Furthermore, there are plenty of Borges specialists in academia, and the request came from a well-known journal, so it would not be hard for them to find a better match.

The reason why I hesitated this time was that, though it wasn't a topic I specialize in, I have read and thought about some of the issues the article (at least judging from its title and abstract) raises. And I am interested in them. So I finally accepted.

So my question for you, academic readers, is: provided there are no other issues (lack of time, etc), how far outside of your comfort zone are you willing to go when reviewing a manuscript for a journal?


  1. Estanislao PlasiniDecember 1, 2012 at 2:17 PM

    I'm relatively new to the editorial side of academia, but I have been asked to review several articles and one book manuscript, so these are important issues to me personally.
    For me, along with the concerns you mention like time constraints, I've also considered identity of the journal and its editor. If it's a publication/individual I know and respect (and thus want to develop a working relationship with), I've done the reviews and put a lot of effort and even some outside research into them. When there were some elements beyond my area of expertise I've made it very clear to the editor that there had better be a second reader very familiar with these (like, for example, Lacanian theory). Luckily I've never faced the situation in which an editor I know and respect sent me an article that had little to do with my field...I'm not sure what I'd do in that case. I've also never been asked to review for one of the journals that does not offer comments to authors of rejected articles. I don't think I'd do that if asked, because I think it's important to approach reviewing with generosity and to try to make it constructive for the writer, even if their article clearly has no chance of being published. I imagine we've all had an experience where we innocently submitted an article (while in grad school?) only to have a dismissive reviewer destroy not only it but our own self-confidence as researchers/writers.
    It's great to see you back and posting.

  2. I get sent a mixture of manuscripts that are directly related to my work and ones that are tangentially related, at best. In the latter case the editor surely knows that I don't have specific expertise on the topic, and the idea is to get someone with a more general perspective, from outside that particular sub-sub specialty, to comment. In such cases there might be times where I say, in my review, that I "don't know much about [XX] so I leave that to the other reviewers to discuss". I don't think the review process would work as well if each manuscript only ever got sent to readers who were experts in precisely that small area - scholars should be writing with an eye to a larger audience as well, not to the 5 people who know a particular narrow topic extremely well. That said, there are times when I will reject an article because it is entirely outside of my area (particularly if I have other reviews to do and if it's for a journal I would never publish in). You could always ask the editors if they really want you to do the review, given that you are not familiar with the scholarship on [X]. If they are in fact looking for an "outside" perspective, they will tell you as much.

  3. @Estanislao: good point about the identity of the journal and its editor. Although I didn't articulate it consciously, the professional respect and personal friendship I had with the editor played a great part in my deciding to accept to review this particular manuscript. And also the fact that, although I haven't published in this particular journal, I would be proud to do so. And I completely agree with constructive criticism. I think all of us can tell horror stories. But I'll be honest: besides Costa Rica authors from the 1940s, I think Lacanian theory is the second topic I would decline to review an article for. It gives me a headache to begin with.

    @Requin: I hadn't thought about the fact that sometimes, the editors are looking for somebody with a broader perspective. Good point, and I will take it into consideration in the future.

  4. I don't have a sense of it from my own perspective — I've just reviewed one MS, and it was for the journal that is edited out of my own department — but I did just see this in one of the blogs I read. It's probably a little more basic in its approach to the question than will be useful, but it was quite apropos, so I figured I'd pass along the link: