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"Would you mind reading this and telling me what you think?"

posted: 8.2.11 by Steve Bernhardt

With my coauthor and consulting partner Greg Cuppan, I am now on the third round of revision on a research article to be published (pending revisions) in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication. We’ve had two rounds of review from two anonymous reviewers, plus some feedback from editor David Russell. What’s remarkable is the deep, probing nature of the reviewers’ comments. They are testing our arguments, asking for additional evidence, and challenging our conclusions. They are asking for more context, offering open-ended questions and comments that encourage us to think about what we have written and see our way to substantial revisions. They are often focused on outcomes: what difference will this research make? What behaviors will it change? How can the findings be applied? Many of their queries were made with explicit connections to the audience of JBTC—what the audience would expect, understand, challenge, or need to know.

The review process has been especially interesting for me given the subject of our research.  We investigated document review practices inside pharmaceutical companies as research reports are taken through successive drafts, which are circulated to development teams for peer review. What we found was that the overwhelming preponderance of comments, both on circulated drafts and in long, face-to-face roundtable review sessions, focused on tiny bits—little corrections, word substitutions, rephrasings. Another, less frequent class of comments focused on correctness—were the conditions correctly stated, were the populations correctly described, were the data sets accurate in all details? But what was missing almost totally were comments that challenged the arguments, that tested the conclusions, that asked for more context, or that probed the weaknesses of the links between data and claims. Our drug company reviewers rarely asked about how reports would fare with the intended readers—those regulatory officers who would need to issue approvals for the proposed new drugs.

It is instructive that our peers—writing teachers and researchers—are able to zero in on argument quality and provide immensely helpful and substantial feedback. But well-educated and experienced scientists in an industry setting, if you accept our findings, tend to get side-tracked to editorial details when asked to review a manuscript. Our findings suggest that this behavior is widespread, in spite of written corporate guidelines that tell reviewers to avoid focusing on grammar and style. The expectation in the guidelines is that reviewers should offer corrections outside the review meetings and reserve time during the roundtables for more substantial issues. But our observations suggest that the small details take up almost all of the time. In contrast, our JBTC reviewers wrote pages of comments, but not one suggestion for an editorial change of grammar or style.

Some of the behavior of the scientists can be explained by our observation that many drug-company reviewers had not read the draft in advance of the roundtable, so they were essentially skimming from page-to-page, offering comments on what they noticed during the meeting. And it probably did not help that those leading the roundtable tended to page through the long reports page-by-page, asking if there were any comments. No wonder the reviewers focused on low-level details.

All of this redoubles my own commitment to working with students so they become adept at offering substantial, rhetorically grounded advice though peer review processes. They need a deep sense of the importance of feedback, and they need a sense of responsibility to other writers. They also need to appreciate just how difficult it is to size up a text, evaluate its effectiveness in terms of argument and audience, and help the author make real improvements.

As for me, I’ve got to reread and rethink those reviewer comments on our article. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me because of the hard work and challenging comments of my reviewers.

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Categories: Peer Review
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