On Reviewing and Self-Expression
By Erik Dane, Associate Professor, Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University
Many people view reviewing as a chore; a professional obligation about as enjoyable as, say, applying for a research grant or responding to yet another question from “that student” in the back of the classroom.
Truth be told, that’s how I feel about reviewing – sometimes. Other times, I actually enjoy the experience. That’s because there’s more freedom of expression in reviewing than meets the eye. Although we’re inclined to think of reviewing as an exercise in heeding and populating a boilerplate, the reviews we write need not (and perhaps should not) look the same from review to review or from one reviewer to the next. To be sure, the essentials should be there: Speak to the paper’s theoretical contribution (or lack thereof). Consider the internal logic of the paper. Address the strengths and weaknesses of the methodology. Discuss whether the paper delivered on the questions posed at the outset. Order comments from big issues to minor details. Don’t simply critique; provide recommendations.
Still, as I’m suggesting, there’s plenty of freedom for expression. Tapping that freedom starts with picturing the paper’s authors as colleagues of yours and writing your review as though you’re talking to them directly. This involves more than simply using the word “you” rather than “the authors.” It means adopting a tone that’s both engaging and collegial: the type of tone you might use to bring a kind yet formal aunt or uncle up to speed on your life.
We all have unique ways of talking and writing and there’s no reason to suppress our style when writing reviews. This occurred to me a few years ago when I became smitten with the late Roger Ebert’s movie reviews. Here’s a portion of one that stayed with me, Ebert’s reactions to Being John Malkovich (1999):
“What an endlessly inventive movie this is! Charlie Kaufman, the writer of "Being John Malkovich," supplies a stream of dazzling inventions, twists and wicked paradoxes. And the director, Spike Jonze, doesn't pounce on each one like fresh prey, but unveils it slyly, as if there's more where that came from. Rare is the movie where the last half hour surprises you just as much as the first, and in ways you're not expecting. The movie has ideas enough for half a dozen films, but Jonze and his cast handle them so surely that we never feel hard-pressed; we're enchanted by one development after the next.”
Certainly, not every paper we review merits praise on the order witnessed above. Still, it’s worth noting that some of this verbiage (and the tone surrounding it) could be incorporated into a review of an article submission with strong effect. What if, for example, a reviewer stated the following: “Rare is the article where the discussion section is every bit as engaging as the introduction and contains enough surprises to challenge existing assumptions in our field several times over”?
That’s complimentary. And engaging. And appropriate enough in its tone, I believe, to raise very few eyebrows among editors and authors.
Perhaps the best part about reviewing academic articles – compared to writing them – is that, almost always, the review you submit is the one that will be “accepted.” That is, writing reviews is not subject to a revise and resubmit process. The net is that, unlike article submissions, reviews that take stylistic liberties or deviate from mindless templates aren’t subject to blowback. They’re simply “published” as is. In that sense, there’s no labor wasted in writing reviews in the fashion and form that comes most naturally.
With that said, it’s always important to remind ourselves that, at core, the review process is designed to benefit the authors, not elevate the stature or grandeur of the reviewers. As such, reviewing should not be seen as an opportunity to grandstand, or sound smart, or demonstrate cleverness bordering on the cheeky. Capitalizing on the freedom of expression reviewing permits entails maintaining respect for the review process and striving to empathize with the authors – a set of individuals who have surely put far more thought and effort into the paper than even the headiest of reviewers.