As an academic and as an editor (of an international science/engineering journal, a book series and various books) I have refereed, reviewed and marked thousands of documents over the decades. I offer the following general advice to try and help those who are less experienced.
Here are three things to consider, with more detailed notes on each to follow:
2. BE BALANCED
Always check, again, what you are reviewing before you write each of your points. You should have at least one quotation that supports each point you wish to make. This doesn’t mean that you should use the quote in your review, indeed, over use of quotations is stylistically poor and often makes tedious reading. On the other hand, imagine that you have a strict editor, an old fashioned traditionalist, your sternest critic, who demands that you can prove every point you wish to make.
It happens to me, occasionally, that I read something, make a note of it, but when I return to it while writing my review and carefully consider the passage, in its local context and within the whole source, I find that my initial thoughts are compromised and my case not as strong as I first thought. This, just by itself, might even change the whole tenor of my review. To poach from cricket, the benefit of the doubt should always be with the source’s author.
Nothing is perfect. There are always positives and negatives. A good review should point its readers to what is good and what less so. A balanced review does not prevent a reviewer offering a conclusion, they should always try to do so, but even the most positively enthusiastic review is better for being tempered with caution, otherwise your review’s readers will think you are the source author’s mum.
If as a reviewer you can find nothing positive, then the problem is likely to be with you as a reviewer. In the extreme case, reviewing what you consider truly terrible, then your final redoubt is that one can always learn from the very, very bad. If you do have to say horrible things about someone else’s work, then this is no excuse for being rude as well. I’d go so far as to suggest that the more negative one’s review, the greater is the need to say the distasteful politely.
Refereeing scientific papers, the ones that I regretfully, but firmly, recommended for rejection took the longest to do. It’s a moral matter, one should be very careful about writing negative things that can significantly affect other people, particularly people who you only know through their writings.
Empathy is about ‘putting yourself in some else’s shoes’; to appreciate the different perspectives that others possess. I think empathy was the hardest thing I ever tried to teach my final year students.
One can even argue that empathy is unnatural in a visually dominated species as the optical world really does appear to be centred on, and spin around, each of us. Arguments that successful social interactions require empathy are complicated and not clear in that they require, at least, a psychological double think. As an example, in Watching Cricket on the Radio (Chapter 8) a distinction is made between:
· a commentator’s model of a bowler’s psychology,
· a commentator’s model of a bowler’s model of their psychology.
After this it gets more complicated.
The bottom line probably concerns the strength, didacticism and so forth of a reviewer’s beliefs. Ideally, an honest, balanced review should be independent of the reviewer’s own beliefs. Few reviewers will manage anything close to the ideal, but it helps to have even a basic awareness that a review’s readers shouldn’t have to put effort into disentangling the reviewer’s beliefs from those of the review’s subject.
Empathy is difficult, which may be a measure of its value.
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