Thursday, September 15, 2016

Surviving Peer Review on Your Own Terms, by Alison Skyrme, Jane Schmidt, and Curtis Sassur


A new librarian, an experienced librarian and an archivist got together to do a research project. What happened along the way was not quite what we expected. Maybe you’ve experienced something like it, or maybe you’ll face a similar situation in the future. We want to share our experience with the joy, excitement, trials, and disappointment in the world of academic publishing.

Why we did the research

For us, finding the topic was the easy part. We had decided that we would purposefully avoid supervising unpaid internships as a matter of professional integrity, and only take on students that our library could properly fund. During the course of this decision, it was clear that the topic had been neglected in library research and we wanted to take a close look at the institutionalization of unpaid internships within accredited library science graduate programs. There was (and remains) a climate of scrutiny on the misuse of unpaid interns in many sectors. Work-study programs are an accepted part of librarian education - we thought it was prudent to take a critical look at how well it’s working. We wanted to hear what the interns had to say. Are they really benefitting? Is their work valued? Is the experience worthwhile? So, with ethics board approval, a research plan, and a literature review in hand we were on our way.

Research: The good, the bad, and the anti-climactic

We thought a social sciences-based approach would best serve our needs, so we used survey tools and interviews to examine the value of the internships. Our background research went well: it showed a gap in the research, offered guidance in the form of similar studies from other fields, and highlighted issues to investigate. The dreaded ethics approval process was a useful exercise, even though it did feel a bit fastidious in the moment. Gaps in our survey tools, ethical considerations we’d missed, and practical issues were highlighted and remedied. With approval in hand, we eagerly sent our surveys and interview requests out into the world and waited for the data and volunteers to come flooding in.

Cue the crickets.

Sometimes, despite best efforts, all you get is a small sample size. In our case, very small. Tiny, really. Why? Some institutions may have been unwilling to participate, some individuals were perhaps afraid of giving negative feedback that may affect their future career, despite assurances of privacy. Others may have simply deleted the email. Still others may have had survey fatigue. There is no way to know why we got a a poor response rate, but we did. We re-sent requests, we widened our search, we ensured messages were being received, but we still only received a small amount of responses. What next? We sought the advice of our ethics review board to see if we should proceed. They told us that we could, but we would have to note that the sample size would have to be acknowledged in the final product. And so, we carried on - we’d gotten this far, right?

The interviews we did with former unpaid interns that did contact us were fascinating. They shared experiences we hadn’t considered and gave us a point of view we hadn’t anticipated. That’s what research is supposed to do, right? We became so immersed in the rich narratives before us, our concerns about the sample size were assuaged.

Putting it out there

When we had collected all the data we could, we found a journal that seemed in line with the kind of research we did. We followed the structure, formatting and submission instructions, and then we waited. And waited. By the time we received the good news that our publication had been accepted (with “extensive and comprehensive revisions”), the research was well over a year old, and we were starting to lose enthusiasm. But we rallied, and began to carefully review the required changes. Receiving negative feedback is never a hootenanny. We understand the process is designed to ensure high quality - and certainly there were changes that needed to be made - but upon reviewing the portions that were re-written as per the reviewers suggestions, we no longer felt the paper was meaningful enough to be published.

Making the hard choice

So, now what? When you have annual reviews pending and research is expected, it’s difficult to say “no” to a publication, even if the final product would feel inauthentic. While our paper was technically accepted, the required revisions would have nullified any conclusions we made, and we honestly wondered why they wanted to publish it. We concluded that we didn’t need to shoehorn our research into a box that didn’t fit. We also decided we didn’t want to let it go, and opted for Plan B - alternative dissemination.

Plan “B” doesn’t have to be Bad

This must be prefaced with an acknowledgement that we are lucky enough to work for an institution that takes a relatively broad view of publishing. Poster presentations, self-publishing, and blog posts are all reasonably considered. This isn’t the case for everyone, of course. But if librarians are meant to be at the forefront of a bold new world of scholarly dissemination, we need to walk the talk. This project may not have gone exactly as planned in the traditional sense, but even with its shortcomings, there is value to its existence. We are sharing it now, for the wisdom to be gleaned from its (limited) results and to talk about the experience we had from idea to peer review. We feel privileged to be able to take this approach and hope that it helps inspire others to explore a similar path if they find themselves in a similar situation.

Alternative dissemination is ok. [Editor’s Note: I’m obviously a fan of alternative dissemination.] We don’t need to publish in an academic journal to have our voices heard, to start a discussion, to make people think. Certainly the traditional peer-review model has its place, but it is not always the best way to reach your audience. We cannot expect scholarly communications to evolve if we aren’t willing to take the lead by example.

Sounds like a great research opportunity….

Alison Skyrme is the Special Collections Librarian at the Ryerson University Library and Archives, and an instructor in the Film + Photographic Preservation and Collections Management graduate program at Ryerson. Alison holds a Master of Information from the University of Toronto, 2015, and specializes in the management of photographic collections. She is currently the Image Arts liaison librarian. She tweets at @A_Skyrme.

Jane Schmidt has worked in collections management at Ryerson University in Toronto since she graduated from University of Alberta in 2004. She has previously presented and published on issues related to monograph acquisitions including weeding, demand driven acquisitions and budget management. She is presently the Engineering liaison librarian. Her current research interests include Little Free Libraries, public libraries, political economy and dinosaurs, thanks to her 5 year old son Elliott. She tweets at @janeschmidt and blogs at The Incidental Academic Librarian.

Curtis Sassur currently serves as the Archivist and Coordinator of Archives & Special Collections at Ryerson University. Curtis holds a Masters of Information Studies (MISt) from the University of Toronto, and a BA in philosophy from the University of Guelph. Curtis' current research interests include the Canadian cultural donation/tax credit system and the increasing encroachment of private sector paradigms and practices into the library sector. He tweets at @RU_Archivist.


  1. Good for you for taking this approach. I think it shows a lot of integrity, and is very cool.

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