Monday, 28 January 2013

Dealing with peer reviews

I frequently receive emails from JIPLP contributors regarding the observations made by the peer reviewers who have assessed the suitability, or otherwise, of their articles for publication.

Never have I received correspondence from authors whose articles have been rejected outright, and only rarely do I hear from authors whose submissions have been immediately accepted.  Almost all this correspondence comes from authors who have received the message with which most submissions are met. This runs along the lines of: "the peer reviewer recommends publication, but suggests that you consider making (substantial) amendments ..."

When dealing with peer reviewers,
authors may need to cultivate a thick skin
The range of reactions is wide. Some authors gratefully incorporate the suggestions of the peer reviewer into their article; indeed, they occasionally even acknowledge their peer reviewer as the source of an idea which they articulate and develop.  Others are frankly abusive. "This reviewer doesn't know what he is talking about" is a not uncommon refrain (curiously, reviewers who allegedly don't know what they are talking about are always referred to as "he", although a large proportion of articles are reviewed by women). Some authors give a sigh and knuckle down to the often tedious work involved in restructuring articles, rooting around for proper references and citations and providing reasoning to support statements which appear to them to be so obvious as to require no justification.

 Occasionally, of late, I have heard from contributors who have contemplated the peer reviewers' comments, decided that they constitute an impassable barrier to publication and have simply abandoned their projects.

My observations on the various phenomena described above are as follows:

* Authors should never assume that the peer reviewer "knows nothing". Most are themselves accomplished writers and personalities in the field of intellectual property, and all are skilled in the art of constructive reading.  If they feel that something is missing from an article and say so, the very least that a contributor can do by way of response is to explain why that missing ingredient is unnecessary.  To say "well, it's obvious", or "anyone would have known this if they had read my previous article, which I refer to in my footnotes", is not an adequate response.

* As a class, and speaking in entirely general terms since there are some major exceptions, top intellectual property lawyers are generally better at giving criticism than in receiving it.  Added to this is the fact that, while a busy writer might have allocated time and resources for researching and writing a piece for JIPLP, he or she may have not made provision for the exercise of revising or rewriting.  Thus disheartened and placed under pressure of time, an author may be reluctant to press on and polish the submission in question.  This response is wholly understandable, but authors should counterbalance their sentiments of despondence against the anticipation of far happier feelings when their article, often substantially improved beyond the original, sees the light of day and, upon publication, attracts favourable comments.

* Peer reviewers, as a class, are neither more nor less omniscient than authors who submit articles for publication (many are actually contributors to the journal in their own right). If a peer reviewer suggests making a change but the author disagrees, it doesn't hurt to enter into a little constructive dialogue. Sometimes the peer reviewer will agree that the author is right. On other occasions the outcome is that the article is effectively metamorphosed into two articles, with the suggested amendments or additions becoming the subject of a second, independent article. There are many variations on this theme.

* On the whole, peer reviewers read far more articles than authors write. And, unlike authors -- who may be writing in order to promote a cause, a law firm or themselves, or in a sincere desire to explain or discuss an interesting point of law or practice, the peer reviewer is tasked only with the responsibility of quality control.  This task relates to the assessment of the text under review, not the author.  The peer reviewer has no personal interest in whether any article is published or not.

* It is the quality of the article with which the peer reviewer is concerned, without reference to the reputation of the author.  Just as a world-class footballer can have a bad game or a famous actor can fluff his lines, so too can a distinguished intellectual property practitioner, professor or pundit create a piece that does not reflect that person's quality. JIPLP will ultimately be judged by its readers on the strength of its content, not the celebrity of its authors.

* In every journal, regardless of the rigour of the assessment process, there are bound to be instances of uneven quality of content.  Peer reviewers, like authors, can miss important points or fail to appreciate weaknesses in a presentation. Sometimes the non-availability of relevant source materials, the haste to get a particularly topical article into print or the difficulty of identifying contributors from certain jurisdictions may affect the substance or readability of an article too. However, JIPLP does its best to provide a product of consistently high quality.

As usual, readers' thoughts and comments are welcome.

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