The sense of competition does not end with getting an academic job either - you compete for grants, for tenure, for papers to be accepted, and for recognition. All of this can wear your spirit down and burn you out. And, frankly, many of us do not want to be "warriors in the fight." We want to be curious and explore our interests and help students become researchers in the process.
One particularly exasperating area of academia is the article review process. Whether I wish to or not, as an author, I often take comments to heart. A criticism of a particular method or point can feel like a criticism on me as a researcher. Replying to reviewers can feel like standing up before a tribunal which is judging all of your perceived defects. It is the place where your harsh, internalized judgment appears to be validated by other people in your field.
In reality though, I have grudgingly learned that my internalized judgments are rarely accurate. Put another way, if a colleague of mine came to see me and verbalized the same self-criticisms, I would be likely to say that they were mistaken. Other people almost always see us better than we see ourselves. You might believe the internalized criticisms though if you struggle with finding self-validation in other ways, such as if you are a minority and feel left out. This can make submitting papers and responding to reviews rather scary.
Submitting your work for publication does not have to feel this way though. So, I began to think about how some of the dynamics of the review process might be changed to be more encouraging. I've compiled these notes below as a way to encourage mindfulness and compassion in academia, as both an author reading reviews and as a reviewer.
1. Praise is just as valid as critique
Either as a reviewer or as an author receiving a review, we think of any praise as faint praise. If someone tells us "The topic is really interesting and I like the way in which you analyzed X and Y..." we almost universally are looking for a 'but....' to follow. The positive commentary is instantaneously invalidated. We believe it's inserted just to lessen the blow of the criticism to follow.
Yet, it is equally valid to point out positive aspects of the work as it is to point out areas in need of improvement. Doing so also does not need to involve lowering one's standards for scholarship. As a parallel, consider the comments you might provide on students' homework assignments. If you only ever pointed out problems on the homeworks and ignored praise for doing well, you would probably get labeled a harsh and demanding academic.
We have come to expect that the review process will be all criticism, so we brace ourselves when we receive a review. We open it, put it down, walk away from it for weeks, and then pick it up again when our emotions have subsided. This is a sign that more compassion needs to be part of the process. Incidentally, being mindful in providing and interpreting praise in one's work are significant ways to create gratitude for the process. Wouldn't it be a paradigm shift if we saw peer review this way?
(As a side note, if you find yourself reading this and mentally dismissing the advice, consider that other people might not be as able to brush off criticism as well as you. Then, consider giving empathy a try.)
2. Your pet peeve might not be crucial
There is no perfect research in academia. Each paper that is submitted to a journal has its flaws. A large part of what makes scientific discovery move forward is addressing flaws in future studies. Regardless of how methodologically good a paper is, it is easy to find some flaw that you, as a reviewer, might interpret as a critical error. This issue can get easily blown out of proportion if there is little else to criticize in the paper. Framing personal pet peeves in relation to the aspects of the research that are sound provides a more useful perspective for the authors of the paper.
3. The when of the review and asking for help
Sometimes academics review papers when they are exhausted or unable to concentrate. A hallmark of this type of review is an excessive number of questions related to clarity. The paper may otherwise be clear, but the mental state of the reviewer has deteriorated. The tone of the review can be set badly if a reviewer gets a general feeling of unease because they read the paper while tired - even if they return to it the next day refreshed. It is the job of editors to help guide authors through such reviews, especially if questions of clarity come from just one of the reviewers.
What this means in practice is that authors should ask for help. Unless your research is simply rejected out of hand with no review (rare in my field), editors want to see the publication eventually succeed. I have always had a better experience in revising a paper if I have discussed the review with the editors explicitly than when I have skipped doing so. So, ask if the issues of clarity are serious. Ask if a small point has been blown up by a reviewer into something much bigger than it needs to be. Even if the editors agree with all the points raised by the reviewers, they will have helpful advice about how to tackle the points constructively.