The many forms of research collaboration

13 April 2023
The gift of peer review
In this series, academics at SSSHARC share insights into the collaborative dimensions of their research. Sophie Chao talks to us about critique, community, and care in the peer review process.
Sophie Chao with fellow fieldworkers in West Papua.

Sophie Chao with fellow fieldworkers in West Papua.

On a crisp morning in mid-September 2022, a group of scholars gather in a room in the R.D. Watt Building on the University of Sydney’s Camperdown campus. Some are long-standing colleagues – others are meeting for the first time. Some are seated around the table – others are zooming in from their homes and field sites in Aotearoa/ New Zealand, Hawai’i, and Fiji.

Together, they represent the full spectrum of researchers: Masters students, PhD candidates, early career scholars, and seasoned professors. Among them are anthropologists, geographers, historians, poets, and cultural theorists. They are my Ultimate Peer Review (UPR) community.

Seventeen participants. Twelve disciplines. Four universities. One manuscript.

In a SSSHARC Ultimate Peer Review a recognized world authority reads the full draft of a major research output (book, article, or NTRO) by a University of Sydney researcher. They then join others to offer rigorous and constructive criticism designed to take the work from great to landmark.

Leading the UPR is Professor Craig Santos Perez, an Indigenous Chamoru (Chamorro) from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam), who teaches creative writing, eco-poetry, and Pacific literature in the English Department at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa.

I first encountered Craig’s work through his spoken word poetry album, Undercurrent. Since then, Craig’s creative and critical scholarship has continued to nourish my thinking in myriad ways – through our collaboration on a project on multispecies justice, our conversations on environmental humanities in the Pacific region, and, as a model for my monograph-in-progress that examines how Indigenous People in West Papua make sense of hunger in the teeth of settler-colonial occupation.

Initiated by Craig's graceful and incisive feedback, reactions, and questions, the half-day review process can perhaps best be described as a form of weaving - of ideas and insights, confusions and critiques.

Alongside Craig’s immensely detailed and constructive suggestions for enhancing the work’s empirical, theoretical, and ethical contributions, other participant interventions suggested reworking the narrative form and fabric of the text in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

Marind villagers from Merauke, West Papua.

Marind villagers from Merauke, West Papua.

Sometimes, the reworking invited a tightening of loose threads in the weave – a conceptual argument that started out strong, for instance, but that wasn’t well-sustained or supported.

At other times, the reworking invited a loosening – an opening up of complex ideas that merited further unpacking, or a deeper dive into the affective textures of ethnographic description.

My peers helped me identify themes or motifs that didn’t quite work, rhythms that needed finetuning, and arguments that needed uplifting. Many also added new threads to the text-as-weave – for instance, the incorporation of genealogies for key concepts deployed, the specific setting of an anecdote recounted, or a theoretical angle that needed elaboration.

Occasionally the threads would become entangled and knotty – as with points of productive, intellectual contention between peers, or debate over the intended audience for the book.

At other times, seemingly distinct threads would suddenly make new sense through their unexpected connection – the relationship between theory and critique, for instance, or between epistemology and ontology. Every so often in conversation with others an elusive piece of the story would manifest itself and make it all hold together. The real stakes of the project, the key contributions, the bright red thread.

The UPR process can be intense, one can emerge from the experience feeling overwhelmed or, to pursue the threading metaphor, somewhat frayed. But there is something unique and precious about a real-time, in-depth review of work that you care about and want others to care about too.

The UPR fosters community and accountability – across  levels of experience, across disciplines, and across the different knowledges and cares that each member of the weave brings to the table. The UPR is rooted in and generative of intellectual generosity and reciprocity.

As I rework the manuscript, I am seeing its content and contours transform in generative ways. The UPR helped me identify connective tissues previously hidden. Just as importantly, it enabled me to make connections with other scholars within a diverse and nourishing ecology of thinking. Therein lies the gift of the peer review as collaborative weave.

Related articles