Peer Review for Early Career Researchers: Your Basic Questions Answered

December 7, 2017 Paige Panter

Peer review can seem daunting to an early career researcher. At this stage of our careers, it often seems one-sided: a process carried out by other people behind closed doors. As a second year PhD student, I admit I hadn’t really thought about the process beyond asking myself “has this paper been peer reviewed?” until I saw the workshop: Peer Review: The Nuts and Bolts, advertised by Sense about Science. At this point, at the beginning of publishing my own work and knowing I wanted to continue in research, it seemed like the right time to learn more about, and get involved with, peer review.

The workshop, held at Glasgow Caledonian University in October 2017 was a great opportunity for Early Career Researchers to get together and discuss peer review and why and how we do it.

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So what exactly is peer review?

Chris Graf, Director of Research Integrity & Publishing Ethics at Wiley, kicked off the workshop by saying how peer review is a “practical and social exercise.” Peer review is an integral part of the scientific process—in order for our science to be robust, we must make sure the quality and validity stands up, so we know we can trust the evidence. Peer review is also about give and take, and increasingly it may become the case that if you publish papers, you should be peer reviewing one in return.

How does peer review actually work?

The process was briefly described by Dr Ian Hartley, Editor-in-Chief of Bird Study. First, the paper is submitted to the journal, the editor or associate editor of which then selects the reviewers. The reviewers provide reports which the associate editor considers and then passes to the editor. It is then down to the editor to make the final decision as to whether the paper is published, rejected, or should be resubmitted. There are various models of peer review which are used for different subjects or differ depending on the journal.

Whilst choosing the correct reviewers for the paper, editors will sometimes have to ask a dozen people before finding two available. The questions to ask according to the selection criteria include: are they independent; do they know the subject area; do they have a good publication record?

What makes a good reviewer?

A great piece of advice given by Ian was to write a review in the way you would like to receive it. Be polite and constructive, identify the strengths, weaknesses, and novelty of the paper, and most importantly, be punctual. If you don’t feel you can commit the time, suggest someone else who could. It’s also not uncommon for the editor to ask what your level of expertise is. Interestingly, the person who is top of his/her field is not always the best reviewer— often an early career researcher is most up to date with the literature and can provide the best revisions.

Why peer review?

Peer review is a part of your personal development as a researcher. Dr Amy Nimegeer, Qualitative Public Health Scientist at the University of Glasgow, gave some other great reasons for getting involved. First, it sharpens up your critical appraisal skills, which helps you improve your own papers and grant applications. Second, as the process is constantly improving, a researcher’s contribution to peer review is increasingly being tracked, meaning a good review record could help you get that position you’re after. The piece of advice I took home is that if you are passionate about your field, it means you serve as a “gatekeeper” for that research community, only letting good, robust research through.

How do I get started?

The best thing to do if you want to become a reviewer is to ask your supervisor for practice. Have a look at the next paper he/she reviews. Give it a go and then you can discuss your ideas together. If you’re looking for some tips, there are lots of different websites that give you advice on how to carry out peer review. Visit the Sense about Science website and check out their guide “Peer review: the nuts and bolts.” Lots of publishers will also produce their own guidelines for carrying out peer review, containing quality criteria to look out for depending on the study. Like most things, the more you practice, the better you will be, and eventually your supervisor can begin to recommend you for reviews. It's never too early to start thinking about peer review.

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