Learning to review… reflections from an Early Career Researcher

I have and observe frequent discussions about the perils of being an academic. A significant component of this peril is the feeling of constantly being under review. Thankfully, the perils of being an academic are more and more up for public discussion or a source of human, e.g.:


For this blog, I want to reflect on the perils of being reviewed. On a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, and year-to-year basis, someone contributing to academic activities will be reviewed. The main three clusters of activities are (1) research, e.g., writing a book, paper, dissertation, grant application or public engagement outputs; (2) teaching and learning materials, e.g., revising curriculum, updating slides, marking; then (3) administration, e.g., personal and school-based monitoring and evaluation, student and professional recruitment/partnership building. This is in no way exhaustive but offers a glimpse of how ‘reviewing’ features extensively across academic activities.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

On the flip side of this, then, is the role and development of being a reviewer. One thing I have noticed is the lack of training opportunities to learn to review. The remainder of this blog, therefore, are some of my reflections on reviewing and top tips for people wanting to learn to review. The focus and context of these learnings are from being a reviewer for peer-reviewed academic journals. Most recently, I’ve become formally involved with Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics as an Associated Editor and with this new role felt it was time to reflect and collate some learnings from being a reviewer.

  • Seeing behind the curtain, as there is a lot involved in a review. The peer-review process for academic journal articles is not perfect, by any stretch, and as an author submitting a piece, it can often be infuriating to the time taken, the quality of reviews, or indeed the decision. Yet, until I became a reviewer, I did not appreciate the time, resources and thinking behind the review process. I think journals could do a far better job (beyond metrics) of explaining how it functions and accounting for its ways of working.

  • Being a reviewer is terrifying, at first. The thought of you being part of the decision-making for if someone’s article (or other entity) should be published is not a particularly fun position to be in. Especially when faced with a ‘poor’ piece to review. Learning to be a more confident reviewer has taken the time and my most helpful tip would be to start an Excel spreadsheet (or other formats) to keep a note of the different articles and journals you’ve engaged with and either submitted or or completed reviewing duties for. I’ve gone a step further in the past 12 months and started a repository of my reviews in documents and reviews I’ve received. The excellent ones become a source of good practice for my future reviews, e.g. structure/phrasing of constructive comments.

  • Developing the difference between reading and reviewing, I’m still not entirely sure about this point, but a top tip would be to print out pieces you review and sit in blocked-out periods to review. As it is not easy to flip between being a creator/reader and being a reviewer. In my opinion, you can be a very good reviewer and not a good reader/writer (and vice-versa). The role of a reviewer demands a different skill set.  

  • Finding your comfort and position on the role of the reviewer, I often think about if they are a critical friend or a gatekeeper of rigour?! Or both. This balance is the source of one of my biggest frustrations with being a reviewer, as there is no universal code or vision for good reviewing practices or thought leadership. Yes, you get things through word of mouth and experience, but beyond this, it is more happenstance to learn how to review, the interpretation of what the role entails and the ethical code surrounding being a reviewer.

  • Seeking out sources of knowledge and experience, to listen/discuss the reviewing process. I have remained as a reviewer and progressed my skills in reviewing by having excellent and individual guidance from some academics. However, interestingly, my biggest learning moments have come from engaging with other review processes, such as the tender process for business contracts. In some respects, academia has overcomplicated and made the role of a reviewer far too subjective. Often industry tenders are clear and transparent as to who and how something will be reviewed, leading to more timely and fair processes and outcomes.

  • Taking the time to learn to be a reviewer, I would argue you learn as much about writing and publishing from becoming a reviewer as you do from submitting a piece. I would welcome the value of reviewing to be bumped up the list in academic biographies/CVs. You frequently see people tallying and reporting on the number of publications they have, but I would be even more interested to hear and see the number of reviews someone has done. A collegiate rather than individualised value system… a blog for another day!

  • Equality, diversity and inclusion principles, in my view, do not adequately exist in the realms of reviewing, and more discussion and action around this will strengthen the process and hopefully encourage more people to become high-quality and accountable reviewers… this is a starter thought!
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Anyway, six extended points and the seventh starter point are all here for you to mull over and discuss. These are very much my views and will differ from others at different career stages, different disciplines and different geographical contexts etc. etc.

Finally, a big shout out to all those who take on the role of a reviewer (willingly) and spend time developing the skill and reviewing articles. I see you, and I appreciate you!

If you want to come aboard at Sport in Society and start reviewing, then please reach out and I can talk you through some opportunities and link up with the people involved in the journal – verity.pos@gmail.com.


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