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A Beginner’s Guide to the Peer Review System

Thinking throught the Peer Review system, especially for first time writers.

January 16, 2019
 
 

Carolyn Trietsch is a PhD candidate in Entomology at Penn State. You can check out her research at the Frost Museum at Penn State or follow her on Twitter, @CarolynTrietsch.

I was thrilled to receive my first request to peer review a paper while working on my Ph.D. Then I realized I didn’t know how to peer review. It had never been covered in my classes, so I started asking around and sending emails, reaching out to my friends in other programs, but with little luck. As important as peer review is, it seems that few STEM programs actively teach students about how to navigate the peer review process and make the decisions involved, such as whether to accept or reject a paper for publication.

Fortunately, this is why we have mentors. I set up a meeting with a veteran peer reviewer and journal editor who was kind enough to spend an afternoon answering my questions and sharing important takeaways gleaned over years of experience. I realized that others could benefit from this advice, and I put together the following post from our discussion (with permission, of course, though my mentor wished to remain anonymous).

Here is some guidance for students, early career professionals and others who are new to the peer review system:

Why peer review? What do I get out of it?

The peer review system is the cornerstone of scientific research. Manuscripts cannot (and should not) be published in scientific journals until they have been verified by other experts in the field. Peer reviewers offer a valuable service––they strengthen papers by checking them for mistakes, anticipating potential problems or gaps in the research, and offering suggestions for how the manuscript can be improved, then ultimately decide whether the manuscript is ready for publication or not. Peer reviewers ensure the quality of the research being published, benefiting the greater scientific community and all those who depend on it.

Scientists are not usually paid to review articles—rather, they donate and volunteer their time as a professional service to their field. This is a way for scientists to ensure the quality of research being done in their field. This is also a way for scientists to give back to the scientific community, reviewing papers for others just as others have reviewed papers for them.

Scientists need to be able to read, analyze and critique scientific papers—that’s why so many qualifying and comprehensive exams test for these skills. The ability to critically review articles is crucial to practicing science and being an active member of the scientific community.

Saying yes or no to requests

After receiving a request to peer review an article, the first thing to do is to check out the journal the article was submitted to. Is the journal legitimate? Have you or others heard of the journal before? Be wary of emails that contain lots of misspellings or mistakes—these are classic signs of a scam or predatory journal.

Once you’ve determined that the journal is valid, take a look at the title and abstract of the paper. Is the field of research something you have experience in? Do you know enough about the subject to confidently evaluate the paper? If not, then reply to the journal editor promptly so they can find another reviewer. If you can think of someone who would be better to review the article, let the journal editor know. By doing this, you are helping to facilitate the peer review process and get manuscripts processed more quickly.

You do not need a doctorate, master’s, or even a bachelor’s to be an expert in a field. If you lack an education but have several years of professional experience that is directly applicable to the field, chances are good that you can provide valuable input to the work that was done or approach the work from a perspective that researchers may not have considered. However, students who are new to graduate school or new to the field (i.e. in the first 6 months) typically have not built up enough expertise to evaluate papers and should not act as peer reviewers until they have become more established.

Though you should review articles for others, just as others have reviewed articles for you, you do not have to review every article that comes into your inbox. If you’re overwhelmed with paper requests or deadlines and do not have time to give a manuscript the attention it needs, let the journal editor know so they can find another reviewer.

If you commit to reviewing a paper, it is your responsibility to finish it in a timely manner. Don’t let manuscripts sit in your email inbox for months––you are effectively delaying another scientist’s work by doing so.

Things to focus on when reviewing a paper

The main focus of a peer reviewer is the science. If you are a student, approach it in the same way as you would approach a paper for a class or exam: is the science valid? Do the methods make sense? Are the statistical tests appropriate to the study? Have the authors interpreted the data correctly and made valid conclusions? Also, check for what might be missing. Are there recent publications they have not discussed or taken into account in their paper? Take nothing for granted.

The purpose of a peer reviewer is typically not to fix grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or clunky language, but it does not hurt to point them out to the authors. Every mistake or impediment to successful communication caught early helps to improve the paper.

However, if you find that the manuscript is full of spelling, language-related or careless mistakes, chances are good that the manuscript was not ready to be sent to reviewers yet. It is perfectly acceptable to contact the editor and request that the manuscript be worked on further, or given to a native speaker of the language the paper is written in to fix it. Peer reviewers are not a free writing or editing service; it is the responsibility of the authors to ensure that their manuscript is free of mistakes and checked by a native speaker of the language the paper is written in.

Deciding whether or not to accept a paper

By the time you have gone through the paper, you should have a pretty good idea of whether the paper is acceptable or not. If there are major flaws in reasoning, multiple missing references, or any other evidence that the authors do not have a firm understanding of the field, then the paper should be rejected. Justify this decision with a written explanation to the editor of what is wrong with the paper and why you are rejecting it.

If the paper is scientifically sound but is missing an experiment or needs to have sections rewritten, it is appropriate to accept with major revision. Provide guidance to the authors and tell them what they need to do. Be patient and be prepared to work with the authors on further drafts until it is ready for publication.

If the paper is well-written and only needs a few tweaks or adjustments, recommend it to be accepted with minor revision. It is very rare for a paper to be accepted with no revision needed.

Don’t be reviewer #2

Some peer-review is double blind, meaning that the authors and the reviewers don’t know each other’s identities. However, the majority of peer review is single-blind, where the reviewers know the names of the authors, but the authors don’t necessarily know the identity of the reviewers.

When you review a paper, you can usually decide whether or not you want the authors to know who you are. Some prefer to remain anonymous, believing that it allows them to be more open and honest with their reviews, as well as helping to protect themselves against possible negative backlash. Others prefer to have their names known to the authors to promote transparency and fairness, as well as to hold themselves accountable for what they write in their reviews. The decision to remain anonymous or not is your choice, and may vary from situation to situation. If you’re unsure, ask around in your field and see what others have to say on the matter.

Whether you reveal your identity the the authors or not, you can still take credit for the time and work you put into the lengthy peer review process, and show how you are contributing to your field. Many keep a list of the reviews they have done, whether in a private document, on their CVs, or through public review-tracking platforms like Publon. Information about the number of peer reviews you have done is usually requested in promotion and tenure applications, so it’s important to keep track of what you have done.

If you decide to remain anonymous, don’t use this as an opportunity to leave your ethics at the door. Act professionally––your goal is to help the authors, not criticize them unnecessarily. If there are problems with the paper, explain them in detail to the authors and give examples from the manuscript text to support your explanation. Then, most importantly, tell the authors how they can fix the problems and improve the manuscript. You are here to promote science, not impede it.

How students can be proactive

Being asked to peer review your first paper is a thrilling moment in any young scientist’s career—it is an accomplishment that signifies that your reputation and expertise has grown to the point where others rely on you for your input. It is also a valuable opportunity to not only make a difference in your field, but also to continue to learn more, stay up to date in your field, and grow your own scientific career. If you are asked to review a paper but have questions, doubts or concerns, reach out to your advisor or others in your program for advice.

Even if you aren’t invited to peer review a paper yourself, it is likely that your advisor is inundated with requests. Ask your advisor if you could assist them with an article they are reviewing to gain insight and experience into how the process works. Peer-reviewing articles and evaluating research are skills that all scientists need, so take the initiative and be proactive in your professional development.

How advisors can help

Advisors can take the extra step by telling students about the types of papers they review, what their process is for managing requests and reviewing manuscripts, and how they decide whether to accept or reject a paper. One professor at Penn State even shares with his students old drafts of papers he has peer reviewed, and guides them through how he reviewed those papers. There are so many aspects of being a researcher that can go untaught (such as writing grants or lesson plans), and something as crucial to science as peer review should not be counted among these untaught subjects.

[Image from Flickr user Mark Hample and used under the Creative Commons License.]

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