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Background

I am a postdoc in theoretical physics and have severe dyslexia. A consequence of my dyslexia is that I have a very low reading ability and comprehension level - in the lowest 1st percentile.

It is very hard for me to read a single paper - to learn new topics I often find it easier to jump around different sources of information extracting key bits from each (something I believe is common in dyslexics).

(Note: I want to make it slightly clear that the struggles of someone with dyslexia are different from those who are not native speakers)

Situation

I have recently been asked to do my first peer-review - something I knew would eventually happen and something I have been dreading. I know the importance of peer review for academia and therefore it is not something I want to try and get out off.

The question

Are there any (well-tested) techniques to aid in good, efficient and fun peer reviewing for someone who has difficulty with comprehension?

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    Is it only with the written word that your comprehension suffers? You must have used some effective techniques to get you to where you are? How did that go?
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 19:16
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    You have my sympathy. I have dyslexia,(and dyspraxia) and i find reviewing difficult, but not unenjoyable. I just have accept that a review my colleagues will dash off in 2-3 hours will take me two days, and plan accordingly. On a practical note, you might try read aloud software to have to computer read the paper to tou. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 19:44
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    @IanSudbery Thanks for this comment. I do use text-to-speech software. That said, it is slightly lacking when it comes to reading documents with lots of maths in - making it sometimes more of a pain to use than its worth. As a side project I am actually trying to write a LaTex to Speech Synthesis Markup Language `converter' which would solve this issue but it's not ready to handle full latex documents yet. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 21:00
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    If you have difficulty writing, that might be addressed by creating an audio recording that peer reviews the document. In my experience, journals will let you upload any file with your peer review. This probably does not answer your question, but it could help other individuals with dyslexia. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 21:53
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    @JosephTooby-Smith Any reasonable journal editor will consider accessibility more important than anonymity. The audio recording conflicts with anonymity, not confidentiality. In physics, the reviewer is anonymous. The review is confidential. You should not review the work of people you know too well. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 23:05

6 Answers 6

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Let me suggest a strategy. It depends on the paper to be reviewed not requiring extreme confidentiality. A variation on this technique is used fairly often by senior professors.

Find one or two students at the university. I'd suggest two, actually, and work together as a team to analyze and discuss the paper. Depend on them for the written stuff and use your own knowledge and background to fill in things they need to know to understand the work.

Having two students lets you encourage them to work together to explore the topic further without you needing to always be in the loop. Meet as necessary, say an hour per week.

The students will actually benefit from this if the paper is at all related to their studies. Even undergraduates can benefit from a deep, but guided, look at current work. They will benefit not just from reading the paper and trying to understand it, but more, I think, in trying to explain it to you and each other.

Some places will find a way for them to get a bit of academic credit for such things.

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    I can see this been a very useful technique, although feel it is more likely to work for professors then post-docs. In terms of getting access to willing students etc. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 23:03
  • Talk to one of the profs that advises students in your field. I'd think Cornell would be a good place to make this work.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 0:20
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    Maybe your place is full of exceptional people, but generally students to not have the skill (or lets say experience) to do meaningful peer review. Exception maybe end of PhD students. Generally you should have gone through the process yourself a few times and should also have a (quite) comprehensive knowledge of the whole subject.
    – lalala
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 10:47
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    @lalala it's not unknown for PhD students to be asked to review papers. I checked with with my supervisor that this was reasonable before agreeing; I did wonder if he'd actually arranged to punt the review to me.
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 13:04
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    @Tom, I wasn't suggesting that the review be passed on to an undergrad, which would defeat the OPs purpose. But studying a paper and discussing it is something valuable in multiple ways, both for the OP and for the students, not to mention the journal.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 16:49
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Are there any (well-tested) techniques to aid in ... fun peer-reviewing

Disregarding the rest of your question, if you are not comfortable peer reviewing something, just decline the invitation to peer review. In my experience, peer reviewing is not fun.

If you want to be helpful, you can be very helpful by suggesting a few alternative peer reviewers.

Physics documents are not accessible to people with disabilities - it's good that you're working to fix this with your text-to-speech side project.

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    I actually declined to peer review a few days ago, due to disability. Probably the disability is temporary. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 22:50
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Just don't peer review. It is not mandatory to peer review anything. It's not in your contract, nobody will complain to your boss, and you will not get fired because of it. You can even decline, saying that you do not review any papers due to your disability, reducing the number of invites you get.

The consequence will be that you (probably) won't be asked to become an editor, and your papers might be judged a bit more harshly by a spiteful editor, and in your CV, you won't be able to claim that you reviewed for XYZ. You might feel like you owe it to the community or publishers (you don't), in which case you can just do something else to ease your conscience, like organizing a conference.

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    I disagree. Reviewing is a valuable experience. There is no reason to avoid it if you can find a way to make it work.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 0:18
  • But most of any status peer review. There must be a reason why they do it. Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 12:34
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It looks like you are a better in-person reviewer. Don't waste your time doing peer reviews, but be active and pro-active at conferences and workshops: you can give a strong feedback there.

Additionally, look hard into your network and try to find a suitable reviewer for the paper you have been asked to peer review. Helping the editor by providing fitting reviewers is very important: the peer review is an epxensive process (in terms of time), everyone should be bound to increase its efficency.

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If automated text readers are not up to snuff, but you still wish to review the paper, perhaps it's possible to find someone who can read the text to you? Probably someone with enough maths background to be able to read formulas, but it doesn't have to be someone familiar with the field. You could pay them for their time.

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  • My thought was the OP might be able to read it out loud and record it. I think they could do this one sentence at a time. Puzzle out a sentence first, record reading it, pause, puzzle out the next sentence, record, pause... And then play it back as a single thing. But it might be very, very slow going, so not sure it's entirely worth it. Commented Dec 7, 2021 at 14:20
  • @user3067860 Yes, sounds very tedious. OP already mentioned that they use automated text readers and that it's a step up from reading it themselves, however it apparently fails miserably when it comes to math formulas. So I think the next step up is another human being reading the text. That should be significantly better.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Dec 7, 2021 at 14:25
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I'm surprised no one has suggested this but you could also request the editor for more time to do the review.

I don't mean to apply any label to you which you might not be comfortable with, but in many countries dyslexia is considered a disability and therefore would entitle you to reasonable accommodation.

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    I doubt any laws would apply since reviewing is normally just volunteer work. The journal has deadlines, of course, and authors need some timely feedback. But, I agree that asking for time is fine.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 14:10
  • Also, publishing and reviewing is typically an international activity, so I wouldn't emphasize national laws/policies, unless the publisher has to follow certain rules about accommodations because of where they're headquartered or "do business."
    – Kimball
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 17:07

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