Considerations for the Delegator and Recipient of a Delegated Peer Review: Part 1

November 3, 2016 Julian L. Wong

Review with Apple.jpgPeer reviews can be a game-changer for both the authors and readers of a future publication, affecting the story that the data tell as well as its impact on the field.  Indeed, the most constructive reviews are not simply “reviews” of the work at hand; they provide feedback for all parties involved in a manuscript’s life. But who conducts these reviews? How are these individuals chosen? And what is expected of them?  In this two-part post, we consider the delegation process from two vantage points.

Part 1: Considerations for the delegator

The breadth of scientific peers in a field is often overwhelming for an editor, who may only be tangentially familiar with the topic a manuscript covers. The choice of representative expert peers in the field is therefore critical for making an informed decision about the worthiness of a manuscript. Most editors consider the list of author-suggested peers, and balance these scientists with those members of the journal’s associate editor board as well as other published experts in the field. Unfortunately, this focused approach places undue burden on a select number of successful principal investigators – who may already be over committed (in which case, they should decline the invitation and, instead defer to other appropriate, suggested peers whom the editor can select from).

For those investigators feeling compelled to review for the journal or editor, one option is to delegate the review to scientists in their lab (with the consent of the editor, of course). In the ideal scenario, the manuscript is reviewed collectively by the invitee as well as by other scientists. This unified approach – if conducted in a confidential, forum-style meeting where open discussion among the participants may take place – also provides a great learning experience for those still in training, and will likely result in a more critical, neutral evaluation of the work at hand, with less extremely negative or nitpicky comments (see also Walbot 2009).

Before delegating the peer review of a manuscript, however, the invited expert should considering the following:

  • Is the science behind the manuscript in line with the expertise of the scientists being asked to spend hours of time evaluating? We assume that editors have filtered through the details of a manuscript, but simple things may have been overlooked – such as the appropriateness of the topic to the principal investigator’s expertise. For example, the proliferation of similar or identical gene symbols among different organisms could incorrectly identify an “expert” in the wrong field. In this instance, the invited expert should contact the editor to confirm the appropriateness of the decision.
  • Is the individual within the lab scientifically mature enough to conduct the evaluation? Experts are requested to evaluate work based on overlapping interests, but this might infringe upon the ethics of the process as a whole since ideas are easily (and sometimes subconsciously) plagiarized. First, has the individual experienced the peer review process first hand as an author? If not, this might be a good opportunity to do so… with the caveat that the scientist is also able to distinguish the demands of critically reading a published article for content and ideas that bolster their own developing work from evaluating an unpublished manuscript for scientific rigor within the context of the published literature. If these basic criteria are not met, then a solo execution of the peer review by the person delegated to may not be appropriate; rather, the optimal role for that scientist may be to provide an additional perspective for a collective review headed by the invited principal investigator would be more appropriate.
  • Realistically, will the individual in the lab be performing the entire review? Principal investigators are time-constrained. Does the due date of the peer review conflict with a grant or teaching deadline, thereby precluding the principal investigator from properly overseeing the review process? If the intent of the invited principal investigator is to copy-paste the delegated review into the appropriate field, then the invited principal investigator really should contact the editor and recommend this other person as an alternate expert (i.e. decline the invitation, and instead defer to the identified individual in the lab rather than outright plagiarize). This respectable path forward enlarges the pool of expert reviewers, provides an essential step in the training process, and encourages the individual to stand behind their own opinion and perspective. This deferral also upholds an honest relationship between the principal investigator and the inviting the editor - and, indirectly, the authors.

Image credit: Anne Hoychuk/Shutterstock

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