Reviewing with imposter syndrome

Like most people, I often feel a little impostery. I’m convinced that sooner or later, people will notice that my work isn’t actually all that important, that my papers are somehow flawed, that I don’t really know what I’m talking about when I teach.  (People may even figure out that Scientist Sees Squirrel is seldom original, mostly wrong, and only occasionally interesting.)

I was part of some discussion on Twitter recently about imposter syndrome in the particular context of peer reviewing.  Some folks worry that they really aren’t qualified to review.  They worry that they may make the wrong recommendation: either miss a critical flaw or (conversely) see something as a critical flaw that really isn’t.  As an editor, I’ve had people whose judgement I respect decline to review on the grounds that they didn’t feel confident in their reviewing abilities.  Ironically, these are often the early career scientists who tend to be absolutely terrific reviewers.

For a variety of reasons, I think this fear is generally misplaced.  Sure, it’s probably unwise to review something you know absolutely nothing about; but requests to do that are pretty rare.  When an editor asks you for a review, they usually have a reason: they see you as knowledgeable, or have respected your previous work (as an author or reviewer), or think you’re representative of the readers the manuscript hopes to reach.  They are not counting on you to be infallibly brilliant, though – just careful and thoughtful.

I think the biggest reason people worry about making the wrong call as peer reviewers is that they think of it as “making a call” in the first place.  But they really shouldn’t.  It’s easy to think about peer review as a gatekeeping exercise, in which a manuscript is judged either worthy or unworthy of publication.  That is one function of peer review, but it isn’t the most interesting or the most important one.  After all, nearly all papers are eventually published somewhere.  If it were true that each manuscript were either correct or incorrect, and that editors were relying on reviewers to classify each manuscript on that basis without error, then sure, you could get your recommendation wrong.  But manuscripts aren’t binary like that*.  Some manuscripts really are obviously flawed; if you get one of those, you’re unlikely to miss it.  Some manuscripts are obviously brilliant**.  But if a manuscript seems to you like it’s pretty good, but not perfect, that’s probably because it is.  Most manuscripts are worthwhile, but can be improved.  Helping authors make those improvements is the more interesting and more important function of peer review, and it’s not an exercise in which you can be “wrong”.

It’s also important to realize that a review isn’t a list of line-in-the-sand requirements for changes that the authors must make – no matter how misguided the review might be.  If a reviewer messes up, and makes a comment that isn’t well founded, there are lots of ways that harm is avoided.  The editor may suggest that they don’t agree.  The other reviewer may assess the matter differently.  The authors may rebut the comment in their Response to Reviews. The authors can even ask the editor, or the reviewer (if they sign) for clarification or discussion.  Of course, authors should never simply ignore reviewer comments – karma will get you if you try this – but one misstatement by a reviewer shouldn’t doom a manuscript, at least not if editors are doing their jobs. (By the way, there’s a whole chapter on how authors should respond to reviewer comments in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.)

Another important point is that even a reviewer comment that’s “wrong” can be quite useful.  If you’re reviewing a paper, misunderstand something, and make a comment that doesn’t quite make sense, your mistake may actually be quite helpful.  After all, if you misunderstood something, other readers are likely to misunderstand it too – are perhaps even more likely to misunderstand it, since the average reader is likely to read less carefully than a reviewer.  An author who knows their business will take advantage of reviewer misunderstanding to make the revised manuscript clearer.

So, might you get something wrong when you review a paper?  Sure, you might. I’m sure I sometimes do.  But the risk of real harm is minimal, and your wrongness might even make your review better.  I usually try to phrase my reviews with this in mind: not “This analysis is wrong” but “I don’t understand why this analysis is appropriate; and if I’m missing the reason that it is, other readers will too”.  A reviewer needn’t be an expert and perfect arbiter to be useful – they can also stand in for the audience the author hopes to reach.

One thing that helps with reviewer-imposter syndrome in the long run is that many journals send copies of all the reviews, and the decision letter, to each of the reviewers. I agree with Jeremy Fox – I love this.  I’m always curious to see what the other reviewers thought of the manuscript, and how the editor came down after reading the reviews.  My review is never quite the same as the other(s), but reassuringly, it’s rarely very far out of line.  Normally, the reviews will agree on a bunch of things; I’ll have missed something the other reviewer caught; and I’ll have caught something the other reviewer missed.  This isn’t evidence that either of us has been a bad reviewer; it’s just evidence that two or three heads are better than one. This is an important lesson to learn, and as a reviewer it’s given me the confidence to say – politely and constructively – what I think.

So: imposter syndrome is normal, and nearly all of us have it.  But it shouldn’t stop us from reviewing.  We’re not singlehandedly giving a gladiator’s life thumbs-up or thumbs-down. We’re part of a team (with the editor, and the authors) working to make a published paper better.  That’s something any of us can do, even if we’re occasionally not perfect.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) April 25, 2017

By the way, if you’re newish at reviewing, Terry McGlynn has some excellent pointers here.  Actually, if you’re oldish at reviewing, like me, Terry’s pointers are just as good.


*^This is especially true at the glam journals, which try the hardest to pretend it isn’t.

**^Not usually mine.

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8 thoughts on “Reviewing with imposter syndrome

  1. sleather2012

    Even at my advanced age and as a person who reviews 40 papers a year an has been an Editor for a long time, I am always pleased (relieved) when I see that the other reviewers(s) have pretty much said the same as me. For some of us imposter syndrome never goes away 🙂

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  2. taxanama

    I did review once and I would love to do it again. However, my greatest anxiety, whether reviewing or writing a research paper, is its reproducibility. It subconsciously makes me handicapped to either review or to write. I am not so much worried about what others think of my work or review but rather if this is a true scientific work. It is very weird I guess.

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  3. Timothée Poisot

    I think it is also important to disclose the parts you feel comfortable assessing. You can do so either in the confidential comments to the editor, but also in the opening paragraph. It will help the authors when they reply to your comments.

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  4. Matthew Holden

    I’ve started to do the following to combat this fear

    After quickly summarizing the paper in my review, I usually put a statement like the following: “I am reviewing this paper with the background of a ________” and that blank might be “general theoretical ecologist” “researcher who works on X but not Y” “Uses tool X”. This allows the editor and the authors to have some context when deciding how to consider my review and allows me to not worry so much about being wrong.

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  5. Jeremy Fox

    Does it help with reviewer imposter syndrome to think “The editor is an experienced expert whose job it is to pick appropriate reviewers. Ergo, if the editor picked me, that means I must be an appropriate reviewer.”?

    A similar line of thought helped me through moments of “Can I do this?” nervousness when I started my faculty position. I thought to myself “They wouldn’t have hired me if I couldn’t do the job.”

    I found that thought reassuring, but your mileage may vary, obviously.

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    1. Anonymous

      This might help me, except that recently I have been getting manuscripts back for revision with no comments from the editor other than the status. I don’t even know who the editor was on a paper that was recently accepted.

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