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Peer review: time to get ECRs involved


Approaching Christmas and leaving an autumn with the important recurrent weeks of research behind us. Obviously, I am referring to Peer Review Week and Open Access Week and since previous posts already have dealt with open access (and also preprints) it can be wise to give some time to peer review, often referred to as a fundamental service activity of academic researchers. For an early career researcher embarking on a hopefully fruitful scientific career it is important to learn how to navigate around the challenges of peer review when you want to publish your research. Maybe, the greatest challenge is to get ECRs involved in peer review at all and to get them the necessary training to be confident reviewers.


Engaging ECRs in the review process

Peer Review Week, which this year was held in September, is a global event celebrating the vital role peer review have in maintaining scientific quality. The central message is that good peer review, whatever shape or form it might take, is critical to scholarly communications. This year’s theme was diversity and inclusion where one important aspect is how to engage more ECRs in the review process and equip them with the necessary tools to perform reviews. A recent survey in eLife about different aspects of peer review namely showed that most (92%) ECRs surveyed had some reviewing experience, but more than half, and 37% of PhD students, had performed their review without the assistance of their advisor. Most of the ECRs responding had learned to peer review by following advice from their advisor or by learning from the example of reviews that they had received. To assess the knowledge of the participants, the survey also asked what reviewers should look for when assessing a paper. In general, researchers felt that the role of peer reviewers is to check the underlying science of the paper and to ensure that this is clearly described. The aspect of peer review that most ECRs found difficult was evaluating statistics. Clearly there is room for improvements providing the necessary knowledge and training. More difficult is the rarely discussed in the open of peer review ghost-writing that occurs when an established academics pass on their peer review invitations to their junior colleagues and fail to advise the journal editor or credit their colleagues for it. Here the academic community at large and the individual institutions must act to prevent this malfeasance.


Getting recognition

An important ongoing discussion concerns giving peer reviewers better recognition for their effort, since they, in almost any cases, take on this important and time-consuming task without any rewards and much of the work may need to be done outside office hours invading private life. One could reasonably argue that we are all in this together, i.e. if I want someone to peer review my research paper I must also contribute and do my part. This is not that easy though since you can find yourself getting more and more invitations to review other researchers’ work making it hard to find the time to do your own, since in many cases this is not something you have officially in your job description. As a researcher in the early stages of your career, or PhD student, it can be hard to argue that you need some work time set aside for peer reviewing or to actually decline an invitation fearing for that it will lessen your chances to get future invitation or your own research published in specific journals.

One important step forward is therefore the PLOS initiative for committing to offer transparent peer review options in advancing peer review. The approach is to let authors and reviewers decide what level of transparency that is right for them on a case by case basis. This means that authors will be able to choose whether to make the peer review history public at the end of the assessment process for their manuscript. Reviewers will be able decide whether to reveal their identities or remain anonymous. This may increase the transparency as a whole but also give credit to the reviewers.


To become a reviewer

Normally, the invitations start coming when you are beginning to get your research articles out there. Usually, Academic Editors decide which experts to invite to review papers they are handling and if you are interested in reviewing for example PLOS ONE, you can look through their list of Academic Editors and identify the ones who are in your field of research, and send them a brief summary of your expertise as well as your interest in being a reviewer. It is also important to sign up for an account in their submission system, but also with different journals in your research field, so your name can be searched in databases. Another important aspect is to register for an ORCID iD, a unique digital identifier that distinguishes you from other researches, linking you with your research or other professional activities ensuring that your work is recognized.

For more important tips from getting started as a peer reviewer to actually write the review, PLOS Reviewer Center has collected all that you need to know. Here you can also find a peer review tool box where you can access video, templates, checklists and other customized tools for reviewers.

In my case it did not take long after I had published my first article that I got an invitation to review my first article. In a sense I was quite unprepared for this and I can definitely relate to the eLife survey, since I have had to learn much on my own, following instructions from the journal and from my previous experience responding to reviewers in my own research. It is an understatement that more training is needed here from an institutional point of view and aspects of peer review ought to be a mandatory part of PhD training. Obviously, those training in academic research should be participating, and receiving training, in constructive peer review. Having a peer review tool box at the time of my first invitation could have made this new academic task much easier to learn. Peer reviewing, despite its flaws, is still is the backbone of academic publishing and need to be valued and developed as such.


Featured image from Pixabay (CC0)



Andreas Vilhelmsson. (October 26, 2018). Open Access Week 2018: time to stand up for sciencePLOS Blogs: PLoS ECR Community.

Benjamin Joshua Riley & Roger Jones. (December, 2016). Peer review: acknowledging its value and recognising the reviewersThe British journal of general practice: the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners,66(653), 629-630.

Inside eLife. (January 17, 2018).  Early-career researchers: Views on peer review. ELife.

Jessica K. Polka, Robert Kiley, Boyana Konforti, Bodo Stern & Ronald D Vale. (29 August, 2018). Publish peer reviews. Nature.Vol. 560, 545–547.

Joerg Heber,J. (November 13, 2018). How is Your Community Evolving? PLOS Blogs: PLOS ONE Community.

Meredith Whitaker. (October 18, 2018). Guest Post: Learning about preprints with PREreview. PLOS Blogs: PLoS ECR Community.

Leonid Schneider. (July 5, 2017). Peer review ghost-writing, or do professors understand plagiarism? For Better Science.

PLOS Reviewer Center. Everything you need to write a peer review, right now.

Véronique Kiermer(August29, 2018).Transparency, credit, and peer review. PLOS Blogs: The Official PLOS Blog.


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