Buddy System for peer review (as per Kathleen Neal) & an alternative for the buddyless

Don’t look now, but I might have recently got an acceptance from a decent academic journal. Stylistic edits and copy-editing to come, so I expect to be grumbling about it for a while yet, and won’t be telling the internet which journal and when until I have it set in stone. Or PDF.

This was the second time around – the first came back from review with extensive edits required, and I spent nearly a year avoiding, adding to, cutting down, revising, and finally completely rewriting the damn thing including changing my thesis. And let me tell you this process was not fun. I usually take constructive feedback well (and this was constructive – they were clear about what wasn’t up to scratch but also clear about their interest in my material), but this time I hit impostor syndrome hard and got ridiculously hung up on it. It doesn’t help that the impression I got from many people in Australia was that I ought to have published out of my honours thesis, certainly out of my MPhil, while here it is not expected that a PhD student do any such thing during their first two years (although some of my starting cohort have articles forthcoming in Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature, which is a journal of peer-reviewed conference proceedings); so I flailed around between “I should have done this years ago” and “I’m probably not ready for this yet!” without much of a sense of proportion.

Anyway, that being so, I wish to recommend to the internet at large Kathleen Neal’s wise policy, ‘The Buddy System for Humanities Publishing‘:

This is how I approach it: word up a trusted friend who knows your research well. Let them know what you’ve submitted where, and maybe let them have the abstract (if they haven’t already read a whole draft for you before submission to the publisher). Then, when the feedback arrives, send it to this friend first, before you open it. Having given them some time (a few hours, a day, whatever) to read it, schedule a time to read through it yourself with them. Talk through any aspects of the feedback that feel harsh, or seem to indicate misunderstanding, etc, and come up with a plan of how you (the author) will respond.

The buddy’s job here is essentially to hold your hand and help you keep the feedback in perspective. Critique really isn’t about you, or your worth as a person, but when you are the sole person responsible for the ideas and their expression it feels like that. It feels like someone is criticising your baby, and therefore, somehow, your own genetic fitness to exist. But – unless the reviewer is a complete arse and worthy of Dante’s nastiest bolga – it isn’t. Really it is about the work and how to make it even more awesome, publishable, and important. It’s easy to know this intellectually, but it’s harder to live it as a sole scholar, so the buddy system acts like a pilot to guide you from the existential ocean waves of self-doubt and outraged defensiveness back into the calmer harbours of mere argument critique and refinement.

I used to have a similar system for dealing with my favourite but most terrifying teacher’s feedback on third-year papers. It worked very well, and I used to recommend it to my USyd students if they were particularly intimidated by my promise of extensive comments on their essays. I have pretty much mastered ‘it’s about the work and how to make it even more awesome’ in the context of thesis feedback. I wasn’t expecting peer review to be much different, but I guess the unknowns (how good is good enough?) threw me.

I didn’t have a review buddy to hand here when the peer review came through last year. Here’s what I did instead:

  • Read it through once. Sulked. Complained to selected friends on t’internet.
  • Returned to it, and on a separate piece of paper, drew up a list (in bright pink pen! pink pens are happy!) of the things which most needed to be addressed
  • Included on that piece of paper some brief notes about what they’d said were the strengths of the article
  • Went home and reported to my internet posse the gist of the pink list, who confirmed that this was, in the grand scheme of peer review, a pretty encouraging response
  • Worked off the pink list for the majority of the revisions

Now, there was a missing step there, which was ‘check that the article your reviewers thought you were trying to write was the one you meant to write’ – I lost several months trying to write historical analysis of reception of certain canon law changes before I finally clued in that I had not convinced my reviewers that I was writing a feminist literary appraisal piece in the first place. They were still right about a bunch of weaknesses, but in some cases that was because my material simply isn’t sufficient for a full historical analysis, and I hadn’t made it clear that that wasn’t what I was doing.

An important final step in the process, which I very nearly missed, was to go back to the original review sheet and check that everything has either been addressed or rendered irrelevant. Fortunately for me no one else at UniGe is currently working on Cligés, so the book I needed ASAP was on shelf. Still. Don’t do that, kids.

In future hopefully there will be more people around who know my work well (this is old stuff out of my MPhil – not what I’ve been working on here) and I can rope someone into being a review buddy IRL. Such a thing could probably even be done by skype or gchat, now that I think about it. (Perhaps Kiera and Sam would enjoy seeing me heavily critiqued, as payback for long-ago essays!) Nevertheless, I think the above process (including the pink pens!) could be combined with a buddy system; or it might work for those who are leery of letting anyone see negative feedback on their work.


  1. Pingback: On Co-Writing | Australian Medievalists

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