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

By Sin Wang Chong, the University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Part 1 of 2 Click here for Part 2 of 2

About the HE Education Research UK Blog Series
To raise awareness of the HE Education Research Census and contribute to a conversation about HE education research in the UK, this blog series explores a wide range of issues at the forefront of education research today. It includes blogs from colleagues at all career stages, research areas and nations of the UK. Please get in touch if you too would like to contribute.

Journal peer review is not a topic unfamiliar to 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 “quality” in publications 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) (i.e., 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 had a well-established track record of publications in a particular substantive area or using a specific method(ology). Doctoral students and early career researchers are often an “afterthought”; sometimes, junior researchers are 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.

Viewing peer reviewers as gatekeepers 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 (e.g., 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 (e.g., what are the stages of peer review?); there is an inadequate coverage on 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 of what we should and should not comment on and 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

What I am suggesting is that, while 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 will be discussing some suggestions in the second part of my blog post.

By Sin Wang Chong, the University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Part 1 of 2 Click here for Part 2 of 2

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Author

Dr. Sin-Wang Chong (SFHEA) is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Language Education at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Sin-Wang is Associate Editor of two international refereed journals, Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching (Taylor & Francis) and Higher Education Research & Development (Taylor & Francis). Sin-Wang serves on the governing councils of British Educational Research Association and British Association for Applied Linguistics.

Together with Shannon Mason (Nagasaki University), Sin-Wang founded Scholarly Peers, a platform for supporting doctoral students and early career researchers in journal peer review. Scholarly Peers includes a public Twitter account (@Scholarly_Peers), a website containing a podcast series and a blog, and holds regular events on journal peer review.

References

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

  1. Pingback: Supporting doctoral students and early career researchers in journal peer review in educational research: Issues and suggestions (Part 2) | HE Education Research Census

  2. Pingback: News and Info | HE Education Research Census

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