In a recent manuscript in the International Journal for Researcher Development, Brian Paltridge explores how professional academics learn to review. His findings are not surprising but are worth exploring for a bit.
Paltridge notes that reviewers learn by doing, first by learning from the reviews of their own papers and then by practice:
Amongst the responses, then, the most common way in which reviewers learnt to write reviews was by reading reviews that had received on their own submissions to journals. Very few said they consciously used the journal’s review criteria as a guide to write their reviews. The less experienced reviewers, further, all said they had learnt to write reviews by looking at the reports that people had written on their own manuscripts.
Professional peer review, as a learning context, is itself problematic. Learning to review is essential, good reviewers are rare and productive, and learning to be effective is quite difficult. Paltridget notes that didactic instruction is likely to be completely ineffective.
So what works? Paltridge reflects on his findings:
This all highlights the importance of having a component in reviewer development which is both reflective and experiential, at the same time as being explicit. People who are new to writing these texts could be given examples of reviewers’ reports and asked to read and critique these reports for what they find most and least useful about them.
This is the same process that works for students in a writing classroom committed to high-quality peer learning: well-structured review tasks, modeling and direct instruction in review, and deliberate practice. Learning to review effectively is powerful beyond the writing classroom. Helping others improve in any domain is a leadership skill. Paltridge provides yet another example of how powerful review is to professional practice.