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How to get the most out of peer reviews

Rather than seeing the peer review process as negative, veteran academic authors William Stallings and Francine McKenzie encourage authors to see it as a valuable opportunity to improve their work.

McKenzie, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario, said authors should see peer reviews as part of a process of improving a piece and one’s writing skills in general. “Think of peer review as more an intellectual exchange than a judgment,” she said. “With this mindset, authors can approach peer review with enthusiasm instead of apprehension.”

To get the most helpful peer review feedback for textbooks, Stallings, a prolific computer science textbook author, recommends working with your publisher to create a customized questionnaire for your book that asks reviewers for their opinions on the organization of the book, which chapters they would assign to their students, and which supplements they would like to use with the book.

In addition to seeking peer review feedback from instructors, Stallings suggests consulting with experts in your industry. “I have found it useful to solicit professionals to review individual chapters in return for getting a copy of the book when published,” he said. “I have found this feedback essential in making sure that the book is up-to-date and relevant. Although the feedback is from professionals rather than academics, the result is a book that is more marketable in the academic market because it has real-world relevance and timeliness.”

Stallings recruits volunteer reviewers from online forums related to his field. He mails signed books to these reviewers personally rather than having them sent out from the publisher. He said that this practice is worth shipping costs because “it builds good will and is a nice gesture to someone who did work for you for no pay.”

When responding to peer reviews, Stalling advises authors to make sure they understand each comment, and when in doubt, to ask follow up questions. McKenzie recommends that as you read your reviewers’ comments, you try not to feel defensive about your work or feel like you are at the mercy of the reviewer. “Learn from the comments,” she said. “Don’t focus on the judgment; critical comments can make it a better piece.” If you disagree with a reviewer’s suggestion, it is important to make a case for your point of view because “at the end of the day it is your work, your name on the paper,” McKenzie said.

When revising journal articles, McKenzie also advises that authors work with the editor to improve the piece. Instead of thinking of the editor as someone who sits in judgment, authors can initiate a dialogue with the editor to ask questions and get valuable advice. She has found most editors to be very helpful in revising articles based on the suggestions of peer reviewers.