Overcoming impostor phenomenon as a peer reviewer
I recall how nervous I felt the first time I was invited to peer review. I had perhaps five published research articles at the time and was awaiting the verdict on my application for tenure and promotion, but I still felt positively green as a researcher. I was flattered that the editor had identified me from one of my publications and invited me to review; it felt good to be acknowledged as an expert, and that feeling made me accept the invitation—but then a wave of impostor phenomenon descended upon me.
How could I be an expert, I asked myself. How would I know what to say? I still acutely felt the room for improvement in my own work, so how could I judge someone else’s? Now, after eight years of reviewing for more than ten different journals in my field, I still occasionally feel those butterflies in my stomach, worrying that I don’t have the expertise needed. But I’ve found concrete strategies to help me overcome that feeling of impostorism and strive to give my peers the constructive feedback they deserve.
- Before I begin, I remind myself that I have expertise. I have years of experience and lists of accomplishments. I certainly don’t know everything, but I know something, and that’s enough. I do not have to be superior to an author to review their work; I only need to acknowledge that I am worthy of being their peer. This pep talk helps to put me in the right frame of mind.
- I read the journal’s scope and mission and the reviewer guidelines - Every. Single. Time. Even if I have reviewed for a journal for years, I want to be sure that their goals and guidelines (and no one else’s) are front and center in my mind.
- I read the manuscript the first time without a pen. Nowadays, I actually read digitally, but I resist the urge to add comments in the virtual margin. My first reading is about fully absorbing and respecting the content that the author has submitted, without being distracted by my own ideas of what the content should be. Avoiding marking at this stage also helps me resist the urge to copyedit; although I may want to tell the author they have a problem with, say, comma splices, it’s not my job to correct every instance, and doing so would detract from my real goal of assessing the work’s structure and content.
- On my second reading, I begin to think about holistic improvements. Did I realize something by the end of the paper that should have been explained at the beginning? Did I stumble through an undefined concept or an uneven flow between sections? Did I raise an eyebrow at a questionable step in the method, or balk at a conclusion that didn’t feel fully supported? I make notes about weaknesses throughout my second reading, but I also make notes about key strengths: What is especially compelling about the results? Which conclusions most resonated with me, as a peer, and represented an impact on our field? What do I see in this work that really matters?
- Next, I review my list of weaknesses and add suggestions for how they might be improved. Reviewing should always be a constructive activity, and so telling someone “This doesn’t work” is insufficient. As a reviewer, I need to help them see how it could work. Often, multiple solutions are possible, and I phrase my suggestions to indicate that my way is not the only way—but I need to illuminate some possibility to help the author consider the path forward.
- As I draft my final comments to the author and editor, empathy is my watchword. My job is not to tear the author down and tell them all the things they did wrong; my job is to build them up and help them discover the best possible version of their work. I intersperse positive comments on the work’s strength with respectful, constructive feedback for improving its weaknesses. With every statement, I ask myself: Would I want to hear someone say this about my work? Would it help me or only hurt me?
Each time I agree to review, I remember that first time, feeling like a scholarly impostor. Instead of letting it slow me down, I use it to shape my goals as a reviewer: I strive never to pass that feeling on and cause the author to feel like an impostor as well. We are both experts, we both belong here, and ultimately my review should reinforce that belief.
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