All reviewers of peer-reviewed journals in their field have views about what makes a person a good reviewer. Many different factors go in to making someone skilled at providing constructive feedback and deciding whether or not a paper should be placed in a journal of prestige. And whatever that certain je ne sais quoi is, Matt Maschmann has it.
Maschmann, assistant professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at MU, recently was tabbed as one of the top reviewers of the journal Nanotechnology by its publishing company, IOP Publishing.
Researchers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields are typically recognized for their strong research findings. Maschmann — himself no stranger to research success — appreciated being recognized for important but less flashy work.
“It’s a really nice honor, actually, because it does take a lot of time, and to get any kind of recognition for these service kind of things is kind of nice,” he explained.
Maschmann said he does a couple of reviews for Nanotechnology each year, a role that sees him serve as the first gatekeeper on a paper’s journey toward publication. He can spend the better part of a day’s worth of work on a given review, taking pages of notes and either offering constructive feedback while recommending the paper move forward toward publication or that it be denied, prompting the researcher to start the whole process again.
Having been on the receiving end of some less-than-constructive reviews in the past, Maschmann said he’s careful to avoid the pitfalls of reviews similar to the ones that have left him puzzled in the past.
“I am a magnet for the bad review. They find me. I don’t know how, or I find them — I don’t know,” he said. “But you’ll get three sentences of nonsense, and it’s enough to torpedo your paper, and it has equal weight to someone who spent hours on it. Rejecting someone is fine, as long as you can back it up and show why it’s not as good of work as it could be.”
In Maschmann’s opinion, what makes a good reviewer are thoroughness, timeliness and constructiveness. He tries to dig deep into each paper, working through points of confusion to see what he can piece together before denying a paper outright, then offers constructive feedback, attempting to avoid unnecessarily harsh phrasing.
“Did they lay out the problem? Did they approach it in a logical manner? I go through after that and just follow the process,” he said. “If there are a good amount of equations, I do my best to make sure the equations are correct. A lot of times it’s just silly things, like a subscript might be wrong.
“You try to cross-reference, try to take the area that’s confusing to you and say, ‘Why is it confusing?’ Try to keep reading, try to backfill and understand what they’re saying. Don’t fall into the trap of, ‘Oh, this point’s confusing, therefore the rest of the article is just garbage.’”
Instead, Maschmann tries to focus on lifting spirits, not crushing them, even if the paper is eventually not worthy of journal inclusion.
“I like to provide positive feedback, even if an article is not yet suitable for publication,” Maschmann said.