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Supporting doctoral students and early career researchers in journal peer review in educational research: Issues and suggestions (Part 1)

Sin-Wang Chong, Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at University of Edinburgh

Journal peer review is a familiar topic for doctoral students and early career researchers in educational research. With the prevalence of the ‘publish-or-perish’ culture in academia, researchers’ performance is gauged largely on the quality of publications they produce. An indicator of this ‘quality’ is whether the outputs are published in international, peer-reviewed journals. In the discipline of education, publications in journals indexed in the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) (that is, journals with an ‘impact factor’) are highly valued by universities. Journals indexed in SSCI usually employ a rigorous peer-review mechanism to ensure that published research is original and methodologically sound. To most, peer review is a process of checking the quality of manuscripts, implying a hierarchical relationship between peer reviewers and authors. Peer reviewers are often viewed as experts in the area, giving authoritative feedback to authors, who are expected to take up most, if not all, of the suggestions. 

Problematising the current state of peer review in educational research journals 

The conception that peer reviewers are gatekeepers of academic journals and experts raises several problems, including limiting participation of doctoral students and early career researchers in the process. First, since peer reviewers are positioned as ‘experts’, journals prefer to invite experienced and senior researchers who have a well-established track record of publications in a particular substantive area or that use a specific methodology. Doctoral students and early career researchers are often an ‘afterthought’; indeed, junior researchers are sometimes invited to review because the original peer reviewer becomes unavailable or, in some cases, they are recommended by the original peer reviewer, who is their supervisor. 

‘The conception that peer reviewers are gatekeepers of academic journals and experts raises several problems, including limiting participation of doctoral students and early career researchers in the process.’ 

The peer reviewer as gatekeeper paradigm ensures that participants in the review process are insiders, who are acculturated to and aware of the norms and practices of academic publishing. Nevertheless, doctoral students and early career researchers rarely have the chance to get hold of such tacit knowledge because journal peer review is usually not included as part of the doctoral training programme offered by universities. It is surprising to see a lot of university-based initiatives supporting academic writing (such as writing retreats) but not preparing doctoral students and early career researchers to navigate the journal peer review process as authors and reviewers. In Chong (2021), I observed that most peer-review training resources are provided by international publishers, but they mainly focus narrowly on knowledge building (for instance, What are the stages of peer review?); as a result, there is inadequate coverage of skills-based and community-based approaches to peer-review training. In other words, rarely are doctoral students and early career researchers offered opportunities to practise what they know, including reviewing actual manuscripts and receiving feedback on the feedback they provide to the authors. In a collaborative autoethnography that I co-authored with Shannon Mason, both of us felt unsupported and unprepared when we were invited to review. We were unsure both of what we should and should not comment on, and of the expectations from the journal (Chong & Mason, 2021); we were also perplexed about the format and structure of a peer-review report (Mason & Chong, 2022). Likewise, doctoral students and early career researchers who receive feedback from reviewers for the first time may be confused by conflicting comments by different reviewers and the conventions of responding to reviewers’ comments.  

Conceptualising peer reviewers as experts restricts the number of researchers that are ‘qualified’ to be invited. As a journal editor myself, like many others, I find it increasingly difficult to find suitable peer reviewers, especially during the pandemic. It is not uncommon to send out a dozen invitations before receiving a positive response. It is a ‘lose–lose’ situation: when we continue to reinforce the mindset that only experienced and senior researchers can be journal peer reviewers, it impedes and delays the whole process of peer review because seasoned researchers can only review so much, given their other professional commitments. At the same time, it is a loss to doctoral students and early career researchers because they are rarely given the opportunity to build their confidence in review. 

Conclusion 

Although the peer-reviewing model may be ‘tried-and-tested’ to serve its gatekeeping function, it is not conducive to preparing young researchers to be active contributors and actors in the journal peer-review process. Much can be done – if we think creatively and from the perspective of the next generation of educational researchers – to make our journal peer-review process more inclusive: one that provides a chance for novice researchers to learn, participate and shine.  

I discuss some suggestions for greater inclusivity in Part 2 of this blog post, which will be published on Wednesday 3 August 2022.


References  

Chong, S. W. (2021). Improving peer-review by developing reviewers’ feedback literacy. Learned Publishing, 34(3), 461–467. https://doi.org/10.1002/leap.1378   

Chong, S. W., & Mason, S. (2021). Demystifying the process of scholarly peer-review: An autoethnographic investigation of feedback literacy of two award-winning peer reviewers. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8, 266. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-021-00951-2  

Mason, S., & Chong, S. W. (2022). Bringing light to a hidden genre: The peer review report. Higher Education Research & Development. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2022.2073976