Reviewing my reviewing hours

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Review wherever and whenever you can. Astronaut Shannon Lucid reading on the Mir Space Station in 1995. I have no evidence that she was reviewing, but it’s possible. Source: NASA.

The life of an academic involves an awful lot of reviewing, such that the constant stream of critical judgements can exact a mental toll. Quite apart from how we feel about this part of our work, another issue is how do we fit it all in? We are frequently expected to review manuscripts, post-graduate theses, grant proposals, job and promotion applications, and often to tight deadlines. This is in addition to the normal assessment cycle of undergraduate degree students that forms the core of our business.

Having recently started a new job and a family, I’ve been trying to set a few ground rules for how I would like to restructure my routine. Part of this involves developing a better work-life balance. This is necessary given that for the last few years the work-work balance has been hard enough. I am aiming to be on campus for no more than 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday only. That this is framed as an ambitious target is itself an indicator of how unhealthy my relationship to work has been in the past.

For the first month it’s gone well, but that’s due in part to the light workload I’ve been granted during my first semester. Gradually, however, I’ve noticed a pile building up in the corner of the office: all my reviewing. This week I had to take a day off sick and the first thought that crossed my mind was “Oh good, I can catch up on the reviews”. Is my mindset unhealthy as well?

Over the last 15 years I’ve got used to the idea that reviewing is something that happens outside work, preferably at home in a comfortable chair in front of the stereo. This means it happens almost exclusively at evenings or weekends. I have generally found it to be a relaxing activity for this reason, and that trying to review while in work only makes me agitated about all the other jobs I ought to be doing with that time. When I draw up my list of jobs for the day, the reviewing gets deferred until later.

Am I unusual in my working practices? There’s only one way to find out: ask Twitter!

I can understand why reviewing during normal working hours should be seen as the default. It is part of our role and the expectations of an academic life, and therefore counts as our day-to-day activity. If it’s work, do it at work. But based on an admittedly small sample size, a majority of fellow academics don’t agree, or at least don’t follow this argument through in practice.

Why might we not review during office hours? For the most part we volunteer to take on the reviews, and our employers rarely if ever pay us for it. From their perspective it’s something to tolerate rather than encourage given that we could be writing another paper, working on a grant proposal, teaching some students, or dealing with the endless flow of administrative chores. Every time we say yes to reviewing a paper it costs them some of our time and therefore their money. Yes, this is a cynical view of higher education, but I worked in UKHE for a long time so you should expect that.

When we are paid to review — mainly for some grant-awarding bodies, or as external examiners — it’s not our employers who foot the bill. This is additional income and therefore feels to as though we should be doing it in our own time. Once again we have chosen to take on this additional work, and while we probably don’t do it for the money (which barely compensates), the presence of a cash incentive does change our perception*.

I put down the final option of travelling because I know a number of people who deliberately use what would otherwise be ‘dead time’ to catch up on reviewing tasks. If you have a long commute on public transport, or spend lots of time in airports or hotels, this is the kind of work that can be done anywhere. I suppose then the question is what else you might do in that time, such as reading for pure pleasure or catching up on sleep. Is reviewing while travelling a way to continue working during normal hours, or an extension into what ought to be a time to relax? If we don’t take work home then does that imply that any time outside the home can be used for work?

How am I going to resolve this? Well, today I’m working at home, and getting some reviews out of the way in the process. I’d be interested to hear how others fit their reviewing commitments into a normal working routine.


* The Swiss national funding agency sends its reviewers boxes of chocolates by way of thanks, which is a nice touch, and has no bearing on the quality of my reviews because I don’t much care for chocolate.


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