The smart review

2015-02-19

Over the past six weeks, I have reviewed three journal articles, written one book review, and served as the official commentator on a PhD half-time seminar. I take preparing reviews very seriously. This takes time, but I feel rewarded doing it knowing that I am helping others and helping to shape the field. I consistently get positive feedback about the usefulness and thoughtfulness of my comments.

Reviewing other scholars’ work is an integral part of being in academia. For the most part, this is unrecognized work. Published book reviews end up with the reviewer’s name on it, but many people don’t ‘count’ them as publications. Discussions about how to make journal reviewing more noticed, and presumably rewarded, have been around for a long time—the latest iteration is the proposal of an R-index to capture scholars review production. I think a new metric is way over the top. We don’t need more metrics. What we do need is more emphasis on teaching our students and faculty how to write reviews.

For this post, I want to focus on the review of ‘in-progress’ work, whether that is a draft dissertation chapter, an article submitted for evaluation at a journal, or a draft grant application text. At this stage, the writer has the opportunity to reshape work fairly significantly, although she still can’t make an entirely different project out of it. That makes the reviewer’s work vital.

I am thinking about this because lately I’ve been on the receiving end of reviews that are simply not helpful. I’m not talking about mean-spirited or dismissive reviews—those are a genre all to their own and should never be written. I’m talking about reviews in which the person wants to be helpful but quite honestly doesn’t know how. The reason they don’t know how is that no one has ever bothered to teach them how to provide constructive feedback. They end up providing unclear, unorganized, generic comments instead of something really useful.

In the goal-setting literature, most writers advocate the use of SMART goals, where SMART typically stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. What I propose is that we write reviews with SMART comments:

Specific – identify specific ideas/phrases/sentences that need to be clarified, expanded, condensed, etc.

Meaningful – identify how each change will strengthen the piece of writing; changes should be motivated so that the writer knows why they are being suggested

Achievable – identify the scope of the required change and don’t recommend something that is clearly not doable within the word limits, time frame, etc.

Relevant – give comments that help the text reach its audience

Tangible – give suggested rephrasing, reordering, new sentences, etc. so the writer has an example in writing of how to make the suggested change

Skills like how to write a well-written review of a journal article are critical to being a good academic. It’s time we start treating them as part of our craft.