Peer Review and Why Early Career Researchers Should Get Involved

July 13, 2017 Adam Bateson

On June 1st, 2017, the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, announced his intention to withdraw his country from the Paris agreement. While the scientific community remains almost unanimous that observed changes in climate are driven by human activities, the general population remains more skeptical. It is hence crucial that the public understand and have faith in the scientific process, particularly the role of peer review as a form of quality control. Recent headlines however, including allegations of fraud and sexism, undermine this trust.

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I attended the Sense about Science workshop, ‘Peer Review: the nuts & bolts’, as a first year PhD student intending to write my first paper; I hoped to learn more about peer review in preparation for this endeavor. Initially, participants were separated into small groups to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the present peer review process. This was followed by a panel discussion including Dr Amarachukwu Anyogu, a lecturer in microbiology at the University of Westminster; Dr Bahar Mehmani, a reviewer experience lead at Elsevier; Dr Sabina Alam, an editorial director at F1000Research; and Emily Jesper-Mir, the head of partnerships and governance at Sense about Science. The workshop concluded with a discussion on the importance of peer review with regards to science communication.

A key theme of the workshop was how early career researchers (ECRs) could and should become involved in peer review. Dr Anyogu stressed how becoming a reviewer early in her career helped her to better appreciate the feedback she received as an author. A further benefit is it provides training in evaluating research critically. Are their methods suitable? Have they analyzed and interpreted the results correctly? Do their conclusions seem valid and appropriate for the data presented? It is too easy to fall into the trap of assuming every paper published must be true. However, sometimes flawed research can make it through peer review, and research presented in conferences often needs refinement. Developing these critical skills as a reviewer is therefore valuable as a form of academic progression.

There is hence a clear reason for ECRs to become reviewers from a personal perspective, but the academic community benefits more widely. ECRs form a significant component of the academic community, and their involvement in peer review spreads out the workload, resulting in a more efficient process. Furthermore, increased participation prevents single individuals having too much influence over what theories or approaches are accepted or rejected. Panel members also suggested that, in their experience, the reviews provided by ECRs are generally just as high in quality as those provided by more experienced academics.

To become a reviewer, formal training does exist via services such as ‘Publons Academy’; alternatively, many publishers release reviews alongside the corresponding paper, providing an opportunity to see how others structure a review. Editors have varying techniques for identifying reviewers. Often authors will provide suggested reviewers for the submitted papers. Editors can also use their own knowledge of a field or assess the current research body to identify reviewers with the correct background to provide valid feedback. Candidates who have recently collaborated with any author on a paper are generally ruled out, however. Publishers often also have an editorial board or similar database of suitable reviewers. The latter provides a way for an ECR to become involved in peer review, as direct applications can be made to join such a database. This can be helped using a research ID system such as ORCID which allows editors to quickly assess an academic’s research area and output. A final point, stressed by the panel, is that you are under no obligation to accept a review offer. Make sure you are confident that you have a suitable base of knowledge to review the paper in question. Furthermore, ensure you can produce the review in the agreed time frame.

On a personal level, I found the workshop hugely illuminating. The possibility of becoming a reviewer had never occurred to me previously. I assumed PhD students did not have the experience to contribute. However,the workshop has convinced me that PhD students not only can, but should become reviewers, certainly in the latter stages of their PhDs once they are actively producing their own research papers. Peer review is crucial to the integrity of the scientific process, and hence we should all be invested in ensuring high standards of peer review.

Adam Bateson is in the first year of his PhD at the University of Reading modelling the fragmentation and disintegration of summer Arctic sea ice. He began his PhD in September 2016 after completing an integrated Master’s degree in Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

Twitter handle: @a_w_bateson

Image Credit: Sense About Science

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