The Institute - March 2007 - 12

Best PracticeS

Puzzled by
Peer Review?
You Can Be Part of the Process
By Debbie Davy


any years ago, I had an epiphany. I discovered that my work
writing technical manuals
and procedures (and sometimes business-to-business documentation) was a recognized field of study
called technical communication-and
that I was not alone. Not only are there
many other writers like me, but also
organizations such as the IEEE Professional Communication Society and the
Society for Technical Communication,
which publish journals with interesting
articles on the latest developments in
technical communication.
Eventually I decided to put my
knowledge to use and volunteer for the
peer review team at IEEE Transactions
on Professional Communication. Since
then, I have reviewed manuscripts for
journals, conference papers, and competition entries. By sharing the ins and
outs of the IEEE's peer-review process
that I have learned through the years,
I'd like to encourage other members to
become reviewers.
HOW IT WORKS The peer-review process
is designed to assess the technical merit
of an article before it is published, specifically addressing the strength and logical structure of the arguments and the
significance of the topic to readers. The
process protects the quality and integrity
of the journal.
Each reviewer evaluates articles on
his or her own, and at least two reviewers look over every article. To ensure
that the reviews are kept confidential
and to eliminate any collusion in the
recommendation of whether to publish,
each reviewer does not know who the
other reviewers are. Articles are also
stripped of identifying information
about the author or authors to ensure
unbiased recommendations.
The review process typically takes
three to four hours. Most reviewers:
* Read the article from start to fin-


The Institute | March 2007

ish, forming a general impression. Is the
article exciting? Does the content f low
well from one section to another? Does
the article reach its intended audience?
* Reread the article. What is the
main theme, and is it easily identifiable? Does the text support the theme?
Are there sentences or paragraphs that
do not provide useful information? Is
there a plausible counterargument that
the writer has neglected to address? Are
there significant problems in spelling,
grammar, or syntax? How effective is
the conclusion?
The reviewer also receives a set of
questions sent along by the journal's editor that must be answered, such as: What
is the significance of the topic to journal
readers? What is the connection to previously published research in the field? Who
else has written about this topic, when,
and in which journals? What were those
authors' conclusions? What is the quality of the research approach, the research
conclusions, and the presentation?
Finally it's time to recommend
whether to publish the manuscript or
not. Reviewers suggest three levels of
acceptance: accept as is, accept with
minor revision, or resubmit after major
revision. In extreme cases, the article is
rejected outright.
I am encouraged to do substantive
editing during the process-recommending high-level revisions to the content and organization-but I do not edit
for grammar, spelling, or style.
If the recommendations of the peer
reviewers differ, the journal editor
makes the final decision.
FIRST-TIME FOIBLES My first review was
the most difficult-and not just because
I was new to the process. Researching
the topic, I found a paper almost identical to the one I was reviewing that was
not cited in the references. I assumed
that the manuscript had been plagiarized, and therefore I recommended
that it be rejected. Later I learned that
the author also had written the article

The peer-review process
is designed to assess the
technical merit of an article
before it's published
that was not cited-and that it had been
an oversight on his part not to list his
own paper in the references.
Subsequent reviews have gone more
smoothly. I learn a great deal from each
one I do-and I have not been as quick
to make assumptions.
Although peer reviewers are not
paid, they receive many invaluable benefits. I get to read the newest applied
research papers in many technical
communication disciplines before they

are published. And because I need to
check the citations and technical content of the submissions, my knowledge
of best practices and standards has
increased-knowledge that I apply to
my day-to-day work.
If you're interested in becoming
a peer reviewer, contact your society's journal editor. By assisting the
editorial staff of our professional journals, we make positive contributions
to our field.

Senior Member Debbie Davy has been a peer reviewer for IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication since 2002. A technical communicator for some 20 years, she
works for Rogers Communications, a telecommunications company in Toronto.
This article is excerpted from one that appears on the Web site of  The Quill, the newsletter of
the Society for Technical Communication, at

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