Peer Review in Library School – helpful or headache?

Disclaimer: I am discussing the very last class, also last required, of my MLIS degree.  I may speak with a tad of “senioritis.”

One of the required courses in my MLIS program is Evaluation of Information Services.  I have been kind of dreading this course because I knew it would be very theory heavy and I’m kind of a more practical person when it comes to my learning style [I think we will be discussing more of theory vs practice very soon on this blog].  However, I understand that grad school should and is about challenging yourself.  And, well, a requirement is a requirement.

Then the game changed a bit.  On the first day of class the professor said that every assignment, four in total, would be due a week ahead of the posted due date.  What?  The earlier due date would allow for peer review.  Each student would be responsible for reviewing at least two other classmates’ work.  Then you would have a few days to revise your assignment, taking into consideration the peer review if you felt you wanted to.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about this.  My immediate and selfish thought was that it would generate much more work for me.  And what if I didn’t appreciate what was said?  What if people were not constructive but were more negative for negative sake?  Because of my curiosity I posted this question via Twitter:

And as I usually do when asking my fellow classmates on Twitter these kinds of questions, I got some really interesting responses.  Responses varied from those who thought more editing needed to be integrated into library school to whether it may be stifling or too much “busy work” for one semester.

Now I pose it to all of you.  Is peer review a part of your courses?  Should it be?  As a profession where perhaps it would be positive if more people conducted research is this the kind of process that could be conducive to that?  Do you want to get feedback from your classmates or just from your professors?


35 replies

  1. We have peer review for three of the four parts of our project-long assignment for Intro to Info Organization. I don’t like it, and I never have. For a couple of reasons.

    I’m a good student and confident in my work. Peer reviews in high school and most of college went like this: I would refrain from making my peer’s paper too red from catching every little typo and grammar mistake and from following whatever checklist we were given. My paper would be returned to me with no marks, save “good job! :)” Even when I wanted input on my thoughts or the way I laid out my paper, I never got any.

    My classmates and I are all trying to figure out the assignment together. The most challenging part this semester is following the professor’s directions to a “T” (to get a B), and figuring out how to step it up for an A, without adding too much fluff. The only person that can help us do that is, well, the professor, because he’s the one grading it.

    Yes, having another pair of eyes look over your paper before you hand it in is helpful. The longer you spend on an assignment, the better your own eyes get at seeing what’s supposed to be there, rather than what actually is. But forcing me to trade papers with a classmate, either in class or over the weekend (don’t get me started) is more of a waste of time than a help to anyone.


    • I had the same experience in my info org class. Out of 3 or 4 peer reviews over the course of the semester only one of my randomly assigned reviewers actually took the time to read through my paper and make helpful comments. The instructor gave participation grades to ensure that everyone did the review, but that apparently wasn’t enough to motivate thoughtful reading and response.


  2. I guess I see peer reviewing differently. I rarely hand in an assignment without either discussing it with someone else, bouncing ideas off of someone, or having someone read through it to give me feedback.

    I had the same situation in high school where I would get my papers back saying, “good job” but that has not been the case during my MLIS. I am SO THANKFUL I have people in my cohort who are thoughtful and critical and can help me make my work better.

    I don’t know how I feel about this being a completely required, formal, process in a class, though. I could understand this for a paper or project that goes on throughout the quarter or semester, but it seems like deadlines might approach too quickly for shorter assignments.


  3. Peer review is an art like anything else. Some people are good at it while others are not. This can make it frustrating when you are forced into having constant peer reviews, because it becomes another assignment (with rushed deadlines) as opposed to honest feedback. It would be great if everyone was an expert and willing to give thoughtful peer reviews, but I don’t think that is a realistic expectation.

    That being said, I am very much in line with Heidi’s view. I feel like I have surrounded myself with people who I trust to give me critical and constructive feedback on my assignments when I need it. In return, I pride myself on giving helpful feedback to others as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if people thought I was too critical in my feedback, but that is only because I want to avoid the dreaded “good job!” peer review.

    Once I am a librarian, you can bet that I am going to be asking the hell out of my colleagues for feedback and I think it is a good habit to be in. Just because someone gives you feedback doesn’t mean you have to agree. It is just good to get another person’s perspective.


    • Very appropriate, Jason, to call it an art! That’s totally it. I would imagine that’s where most of my frustration with it comes from. I feel that I really take it to heart and then to get back a review that says “nice work” is just not useful to anyone!

      I also think I definitely struggle with the idea of whether I’m supposed to use the person’s advice or not….


    • Very well said. But if peer review is an art and giving feedback is a big part of librarianship then we have to learn it in library schools. The exercise sounds like an excellent way to do that.


    • “you can bet that I am going to be asking the hell out of my colleagues for feedback and I think it is a good habit to be in. Just because someone gives you feedback doesn’t mean you have to agree. It is just good to get another person’s perspective.”

      That’s what I’m talking about. Jesse nails it on several high-level discussions right here. This is one of those issues that may touch receptivity more than ability. Jesse’s comment has practical implications for both students in peer-review scenarios and librarians in staff management situations.

      Garmston and Fisher both write a lot about lateral coaching and interactive management. Some of the inherent concepts are totally adaptable to the classroom regarding the instructor-student and student-student relationships. In a nutshell, it says “ask everybody available what they think because, believe it or not, their puny perspectives can inform yours.” Sometimes the smallest voice speaks the loudest words. (Jesus, that’s cheesy. And I actually didn’t quote it.)


  4. I like collaborative learning. Being an editor, I never found these experiences very engaging or productive, but I know there were plenty of students who did. Peer review is all about reciprocal learning. Interaction with people of sound writing and critical skills can improve their writing and advise how they think about library studies and intellectual communication. It can also be pointless. Still, with the right people involved, I dig it.


  5. I am halfway through my MLIS and have yet to encounter this. From an outsider’s perspective, I find it very interesting and I would be eager to try it out. I don’t see any harm in the process, except maybe a few bruised egos. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with gaining the ability to take criticism from anyone.


  6. I have to admit that prior to entering the MLIS program, I got my bachelor’s in History, a completely solitary endeavor. Typically, historians are very guarded about their work until it is published or otherwise ready to share for fear of influence or use of their ideas in other work.

    So, when I started at the iSchool, I had a little anxiety about all the collaboration and peer review which the program would entail. I must say, I have been completely converted. I love collaborative learning! I love trusting my colleagues to critically evaluate my work!

    This is not to say that every experience has been perfect or that there haven’t been times when I felt that “group work = poop work” (to quote a fellow UW iSchooler). And sometimes I am disappointed when I feel that a review of my work is less than constructive or too minimal to be helpful. But all in all, it has been an invaluable lesson to learn. Like Jason said above, peer review is an art. And we live in a collaborative world. And, of course, librarians rarely work alone so peer review should be considered yet another tool in the (future) librarian’s toolbox.

    Nicole, I totally see your frustration in this situation though. It seems completely unreasonable for your professor to “assign” peer review for every assignment. And you are right to feel that it adds more work for you because it does. You may want to gather your classmates and address this issue in class because ultimately, most MLIS classes already feel rushed and now yours will be more so.

    To close, this summer I learned that “Good Job” can be completely offensive given the right context (Heidi, remember?). And, it is NEVER adequate feedback from peer review, professors, and especially not from high school teachers!


    • I do have to admit that in the one group project I’ve had so far in my program, I was surprised at the spritit of collaboration most of us maintained during the project. I used to dislike group projects more than Bs, but I definitely wouldn’t mind doing another one with my classmates in my MLS program.


  7. We don’t have anything like this on our course (Sheffield, UK). I think it would be a very useful exercise, as there seems to be a lot of secrecy (not necessarily intentional) preventing us revealing too much about work and grades. I think I would really benefit from seeing others’ work, and having them look over mine, as a way of gauging how our standards compare and obtaining a fresh view on how I might improve my work.


  8. I happen to be in Nicole’s class this semester and groaned audibly when I discovered the peer review requirement. My experience has been much like yours, Jessie P, especially re: agonizing over red ink decorum and getting “nice work!” in return. It’s not that I’m always right but I engage with text as a matter of habit, maybe compulsion. So I know I’m bound to take this exercise too seriously and spend lots of time on it. (I realize that that’s my own problem.)

    When I checked out my classmates’ comments on everyone’s first assignment*, they were as varied in the level of detail and thoughtful criticism as I had expected. I’m trying to come around to the idea that it’s helpful to folks who appreciate feedback, or just good practice for everyone. But I’m still vaguely frustrated by the requirement and I don’t know why. I might resent the time I spend compulsively editing other people’s work. There’s also the possibility that I’m just a library school curmudgeon…

    *One quick note for consideration: this is peer review in a public forum, using the class Moodle site. I wonder, does that make people more or less comfortable with it? The professor also provides a rubric to follow for each assignment.


    • I have mixed feelings on this. The public forum would make it particularly difficult to share honest critical feedback because you would have the fear of insulting/offending a person in front of others. In my info org class we were given checklists that were seen only by the instructor and the other student.

      On the other hand, as a creative writing minor in undergrad we would “workshop” our poems or stories in a very collaborative and friendly version of a peer review.

      The difference may be whether the reviews are framed as corrections or suggestions. My info org experience focused on corrections (not good for public sharing, but good for making sure a complex, detailed assignment is done accurately), but a collaborative review that allowed people to talk about ideas instead of detailed requirements would be much more rewarding.


  9. Another potential benefit of peer review: I think many people approach course work differently (i.e., more critically and seriously) when it’s going to be read by someone other than the professor.


  10. I’m a big supporter of peer review (if it’s done well). Like April said above, LIS is a collaborative world and will only become more so in the coming years. Getting students used to consulting each other for quality feedback through peer review can be a great way to integrate them into this collaborative LIS worldview.

    That being said though, the dreaded “Good Job!” keeps me from fully endorsing peer review as a required project element. Some people just can’t put the time or effort they’d like to into evaluating the work of their colleagues on top of their already looming workload. Others just don’t care enough to provide quality feedback. Either scenario is tragic, but all-too-common.

    I like the volunteer method myself. Peer review has always been so much more productive for me when it’s a voluntary process instead of one forced on me for a grade.


  11. What is the length of the four assignments? I think that makes a difference to the fairness and usefulness of the peer review requirement.

    If the assignments are only 5-6 pages long, that seems very reasonable. However, I’ve had professors (in a humanities masters program, not an MLS) require peer review of twenty page papers. What? Who has time to do that? Even for informal peer review, I generally won’t ask for suggestions on a paper longer than 12 pages.


  12. I just wanted to add one last thing – the professor for this class seems very open to changing the peer review process or really any of the parts of his class. I mean, after all, it is an evaluations course so he’s already given us a survey to ask what we are liking and not liking about the class. I will be curious to see how many people discussed their feelings on the peer review assignments and if he alters it at all.


  13. Based on my two terms of library school so far, I think peer review can be useful, but not in all cases.

    It seems like it’s least helpful at the end of group projects, since everyone in the group already knows how everyone else has performed, and most helpful for things like presentations. Our most recent assignment in 560 was peer review, and I found it really useful in making me see, thanks to other people’s work, what things I left out or did well on.

    Not to mention that constructive criticism is useful, as long as it’s done respectfully and the recipient can take it without getting angry.


  14. I’m also in my last semester of SLIS and have only had one class that really focused on peer review in the same manner as the class you are in. I found that this wasn’t very helpful, because all of us were busy and didn’t want to be too critical. What has been helpful in other classes is when we have time to discuss assignments with our classmates at halfway points as well as presentations before a written assignment is due where other students provide lots of feedback. Collaborative inquiry is great, but I think we can all be in agreement when I say busy work is not…


  15. I’ve never had a class (from elementary school through grad school) that involved peer review. Though I’m only in my second semester of library school, I haven’t heard about other classes requiring it either. I’ve always just had a close friend review my work if I was concerned. The idea of peer review scares me a bit. I’m not worried about criticism — it’s just that sharing your work can be a scary thing, especially with people you don’t entirely know or trust. And for me, there’s something about the writing process that makes every paper feel unfinished — there can always be more content added or slight edits to be made.


  16. Laurel mentions the usefulness of peer review for presentations. I would find it very helpful to get more feedback on presentations; as it is I put very little effort into polishing them. As a result, I am overconfident until I am standing at the front of the room, and then I get nervous and rush until I am not breathing. 😀

    What is NOT helpful is when your professor has all the students in the class grade the final (end-of-semester) group presentations without each group ever seeing the feedback. Basically, part of the grade for this large project was put into the hands of our peers entirely. Criteria were very fuzzy and subjective, and it contributed to an atmosphere of anxiety. It also contributed to a large get-together at the bar afterwards.


  17. I once took a creative writing class that had a peer-review element (for understandable reasons). Aside from that, I cannot recall having a class in library school where peer-review was part of the process. However, I can see the benefits of it if you are planning to work in an academic environment. Most scholarly journals have a peer-review requirement. Having an idea of what peer-review is like would give librarians a better understanding of the scholarly process.


    • I agree with you Monique. Academic librarians are expected to publish articles in peer reviewed journals so maybe introducing students to the peer review process is good. However, I do find that people have a hard time being too critical or mean.


      • I think being critical (but not overly so) is a trait that a person will have to develop over time. Peer-review could be a good way of developing those skills.


    • To be clear, though, the type of peer review you do in academia is an entirely different beast than the type of peer review done in these classes. And once you’re in a PhD program, your professors will quickly teach you have to review academic papers.


  18. I’ve had an interesting experience with this. Like you, I selfishly thought it would add more work for my load as well, but both times my classes required it, I had different experiences. With one, my groupmates were actually very helpful, and provided great edits. The second time, they were a bit – not to be mean, but – lame. The edits would be “great paper!”…and that’s it. I understand not wanting to hurt the writer’s feelings, but edits would really help. Because of that, I have a love/hate relationship with peer edits. Sometimes it’s helpful, and sometimes it’s unnecessary.


  19. Thoughts:
    1. This is a course in Evaluation of Information, so peer review seems apropos.
    2. My personal experience with peer review echoes those of others: I gave thorough reviews and received scant in return.
    3. Again, echoing others – it is a lot of work.

    It is invaluable practice in both critical evaluation AND providing feedback to others that they are capable of using – not too much, not too little, posed as positively as possible.

    I have worked in libraries for some time, but only recently finished my degree. Now I am in a position that includes management responsibilities. I have to talk to others about their work. It can be delicate.

    Being able to do this well, to get the best compromise between the growth (and contentment) of the co-worker and the desired outcome for the particular piece of work, will mark you as a potential manager at the library where you work. Give the most thoughtful review you can, weighing how much you think the reviewee can absorb at one time and what advice you can give that will be the most helpful. The review you give is as much about helping the other person as it is about developing your own evaluation and communication skills.


  20. I don’t find peers to provide particularly useful feedback, perhaps because I’ve spent many more years in school than most of them, having come to LIS from a PhD program. It is very useful for faculty to provide feedback on papers before having students re-submit them. In fact, that method has been hugely useful to me for improving my writing. I see peer review as a way for faculty to try to get the benefits of the former without creating extra work for themselves. Unfortunately, for most people, it doesn’t work.


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