Out of depth with journal paper review(13 Posts)
Hi all, I wondered if anyone had any advice about reviewing for a journal? I have agreed to review a paper for an editor - someone I know, but not very well (but whose opinion of me matters)!
When I looked (too quickly) at the abstract it seemed doable so I said yes, but having got round to reading the whole paper I wish I hadn't. It's a theoretical paper (social sciences), which I realise now is only tangentially related to my own expertise/interests. I feel totally out of my depth and don't feel remotely confident commenting on it.
This isn't completely unusual - reviewing papers always massively activates my imposter syndrome. But on this one I'm really stuck. What do I do? Do I aim for a fairly generic review and signal my lack of confidence to the editor? Part of the problem is that the author is extending a very new theory (with which I am not at all familiar). which in itself is positioned as a critique of a very established theory (with which I am familiar).
If you really feel that it is entirely outside your area of expertise, I would just say so. It sounds as if you know the difference between a misplaced lack of confidence generally, and this case. I think it will look worse if you try to fudge it and miss something important. Plus it will be far more work!
Contact the editor, admit your mistake, indicate your willingness to review for the journal in XYZ areas and make some useful suggestions as to who would make a better referee (if you possibly can).
If you don't feel confident reviewing, ring up or email the editor to discuss. Have a name or two of suggested alternate reviewers to hand if you're feeling really kind!
Thanks both. Is it acceptable to do that a week before the review is due? I feel like a dick, to be honest.
Yes, it's fine, should have done it earlier but we all make mistakes. Just apologize to the editor. Given that it's pretty late in the day, I'd offer to review the parts of the paper you do feel confident about - the critique of the theory you know well, for instance.
I would crack on and put together a review, many I've received have only been a paragraph long, you don't need a line by line critique, just an overall assessment- is this paper theoretically plausible, well written? Others will also be reviewing it too, and if it's a very new theory, then no-one will be expert.
Presumably you should be reading this type of paper anyway, so all you are doing is what you would be doing in 6 months when it comes out- giving it the once over, making suggestions for improvement, finding any obvious theoretical flaws, and sending it on its way.
Don't over think this, either way, it's fine, but if you can't review, don't go into your expertise, which I'm sure is good enough, just say something has come up and you can no longer do it and apologise profusely.
I would do it though, you really don't have to be an expert as in already know every single theory you read about in a new paper.
Just remember that it is a much bigger deal in your eyes than in anyone else's.
Yes ideally you should have realised earlier, but it's not the worst thing you could do!
Given that it's pretty late in the day, I'd offer to review the parts of the paper you do feel confident about - the critique of the theory you know well, for instance don't say this, just put in what you can and give an overall review of the rest (you must be able to say whether it's well-written, plausible, advances the field). Otherwise you are going to look like a pain if you start messing the editor around with which bits of a very trivial review you feel totally competent to do...
As an editor I'd prefer to know if there were some things the reviewer didn't feel confident about, but I'm in a completely different field, the norms might well be different.
I send papers for review all the time and it's perfectly normal for reviewers to come back some time later and say that, actually, upon closer reading, it's not an area they're that familiar with.
I had to add a clause in our peer review form for reviewers to state whether anything within the paper falls outsider their area of expertise because it was such a common issue.
Reply and explain that now you've had a chance to read it properly, you're not sure you're particularly well-placed to offer feedback.
You don't actually need to be a leading expert to review something though!
Hi all, thanks so much for all these comments. So, I (wo)manned-up and read the paper again and did a bit of research and reading around this new theory.
And based on that I felt able to write something, so I have written and submitted the review. I am guessing that because the theoretical perspective is so new, relatively few people would have significant expertise in it.
I think it's OK - it may not be the most useful review the editor ever receives but I hope I've not disgraced myself either. Thanks again, really useful advice here that I may need in future.
It's good thing for non-specialists to do reviews, too. Is it written well enough that a non-specialist can understand and find value in it? This is worth knowing. Just be clear about parts you don't know enough to comment on.
I've learned over many years that the sort of thing you say in your OP - but put into more formal language - is actually quite useful to editors. So be brave & own your lack of confidence - not in yourself, but in parts of the essay which you find less than convincing. You know your stuff!
There's generally a bit of a reader's report which allows you to wrote something which only the editor sees, rather than it going to the author. So that's where you could say what you've said to us - minus the imposter stuff, which we all know is rubbish, even if it's the reality of our feelings.
Your sense of the essay meeting some objectives, but not all, will be valuable to the editor & allow him/her to enter into a dialogue with the author about their essay.
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