Peer Reviewing and Friendship in Academia

Some NRN friends have kindly shared their peer review process anonymously. We think this is a fascinating read that can help people set up supportive group working practices…

We are a group of early career researchers in drama, theatre, and performance who completed our PhDs within a few months of each other. On one level, we’re just friends who read for each other, and people who maintained friendship outside of capitalist academia. On another level, the things we’ve learned from reading for each other can be carried forward to how we read for others, and (we hope) help inform your peer reviewing, too. As we often said to each other regarding chapter drafts: take what’s useful and ignore the rest!

We don’t really remember the first things we shared with each other. But we do know that by winter of our third year, we were sharing full chapter drafts on a regular basis. By summer, we were exchanging longer drafts about once a month. But we also shared shorter stuff much more frequently. Blog posts, tricky emails, job applications…if it was going public, we trusted each other to read it first. We got used to a pattern of sharing writing.

The trust that came with friendship was really important for our comments on each other’s work. We became buffers for each other before the work was shared higher up, with supervisors or other peer reviewers. Running writing past each other became a kind of safety check. We counted on each other to be honest but constructive in criticism. For example, we got into the habit of praising the parts that were good as well as offering critiques when giving feedback. Because we’re all from different subfields, we were also able to inform each other’s reading: our bibliographies are full of books and articles that we wouldn’t necessarily have found without each other. As much as it’s fun to read something right in your own field and feel like an expert, having an outside reader and being an outside reader is really valuable. We wanted the work to be as good as it could possibly be.

Strategies to Try

One strategy is to try to imagine that you are opening a book: does this chapter read like a book? Try to imagine it as a finished piece of work, in a journal or on a shelf. This helps to set the bar, and establishes the work as a professional piece of writing. So you’re not watering down the other person’s work, or patronising them. It’s just about identifying what’s convincing and what’s not, and saying what you think might fix any problems (in a constructive way of course).

Familiarity with each others’ style helps, too; the more you read, the more you get to know each other’s modes of expression. You have to remember that your instinct may be to add a comma or change a sentence, but it might work just as well without that intervention. You can make suggestions without trying to impose a style. Finding the language for that gets easier with practice. Two phrases that are really helpful:

“Take what’s useful and ignore the rest”

“These are suggestions”

With that approach, the comments become a dialogue—maybe the comma is needed, maybe it’s not, but it’s up to the writer. It’s important to understand what’s helpful at which stage of writing; saying “the structure is all wrong” three weeks before submission is not helpful! It’s also helpful to imagine yourself working on multiple levels. You might be commenting on commas one minute and asking big questions about the argument or the structure the next.

Something that happened as part of this process of reading and commenting was a transition from taking all of our supervisors’ comments all the time to understanding them as suggestions and choosing not to incorporate all of them. It raised our awareness of the fact that there are other readers in the world, always, and that every reader will approach the work differently.

In general, we took a “live dialogue” approach to commenting, rather than a “marking” approach. In other words, we would insert comments in the margins as we went along rather than writing up formalised feedback at the end—although we would often summarise our thoughts on the work overall in a brief email or final comment. But it’s important to remember that what you’re saying isn’t the final word on the draft; it’s part of a conversation.

Especially towards the end of a big project like a PhD, there’s value in stepping away from your own work and investing time and energy focusing on a completely different project. You learn from that, and it can become a kind of escape, an opportunity to disconnect and recharge.

Why It’s Helpful

One of the best parts of the process was the affective, absolute joy of a friend’s response back to an essay, and the experience of opening the Word document and seeing the comments. It often was the impetus to move on: a friend’s time taken to talk the work back to you encourages you to keep going. Sometimes we enabled each other to do the work that we could not do on our own. If you look forward to someone’s comments, if you look forward to how they enable you to do the work, that’s really valuable.

Built into this sharing was also permission to not read. We were all busy, and sharing always came with the understanding that the reader may or may not have space to read and comment. That ease of relationship became crucial and made us more comfortable to send again, to ask again.

A big part of that ease and trust was also recognising and acknowledging each other’s reading as labour. You could say that the labour of reading friends’ work is a feminist act. Certainly in our experience, women are more careful about how they request reading-as-labour. All of us have occasionally had emails from men who asked us to read things, which we did. But those requests were sometimes made in a less careful way, seemingly without awareness of the labour that goes into reading.

That isn’t to say that men can’t be feminist in their reading or their sharing of work; the feminist act is in how the request and the response are framed. In some ways, we’re attempting to resist the desire for women to be in competition with each other, the “divide and conquer” mentality. By resisting competition with each other, we resist the capitalist, neoliberal model of academia. The small acts of resistance inherent in reading for each other have helped us to take more pleasure in our work, to become more sensitive readers and peer reviewers, and and to nurture a powerful and valuable friendship.

Ultimately, we feel privileged to be in a friendship where we can work and share work without competition. We’re cautious of advocating a formulaic approach to peer reviewing and friendship. We didn’t formalise our own process until we sat down to write this blog post. There’s always an understanding that we’re all creating every day—and maybe that’s where the feminism is.

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