An early career researcher’s take-home tips on peer review

Dr. Clara Calia evaluates the Sense About Science workshop ‘Peer Review: The Nuts and Bolts’

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“What is peer review exactly, and how does it work?” This was a question that many of us were asking ourselves when we attended a workshop for early career researchers on the peer review process in November last year.

Organized by Sense about Science and their early career researcher network Voice of Young Science, the workshop gave us the opportunity to listen to many different perspectives and share insights on a topic that most of the time is not taught.

I completed my PhD a few months ago and I am now working as an early career researcher at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. I decided to participate in this workshop mainly for my curiosity and to listen to the panelists and other attendees, to understand the peer review process more clearly.

The variety of information from the panelists – a journal development manager, editors of two leading journals in different fields and the head of governance and partnership at Sense about Science – and the other attendees (mainly early career researchers like me), and the combination of group work, discussion and presentations from editors made this workshop a valuable experience. Everybody who is starting out in research or is simply interested in science should have the opportunity to participate in this kind of discussion!

These are my top take-home tips from the workshop:

  • Have a mentor or somebody to guide you in the peer review process. As early career researchers, we need to see how the job is done by someone who has experience and enjoys doing it. This way we can lay the foundations so we are ready when we do it by ourselves. It is like “andare a bottega” – an Italian expression used to describe the apprenticeship in a "maestro’s" workshop.
  • Understand the criticisms and strengths of the peer review process. We need peer review; it is the only way we can guarantee the quality of research. However, this requires a sense of duty, hard work and honesty from both reviewers and authors. Although reviewers are unfortunately in short supply, everybody wants to publish (authors, journals, universities, funders), and the number of papers is increasing enormously in each scientific area. Reviewers are not paid – rightly so, I think, because there is a potential risk that a financial incentive could encourage some researchers to accept to review papers in an area in which they are not an expert. However, recognizing reviewers is important and we discussed other ways to do this, for example, by publishing their names in the journals as part of an annual list.

Reviewers make a valuable contribution to our scientific knowledge and Elsevier recognizes that contribution through different projects across all disciplines.

One of the suggested solutions to combat some of the weaknesses of peer review and improve the quality of research was Registered Reports, an initiative launched by the Elsevier journal Cortex. Described by panellist Professor Sergio Della Sala, the journal's Editor-in-Chief, this system of reviewing allows the study's introduction, methods and proposed analyses to be pre-registered with the journal before data collection starts. This enables researchers to conduct studies only after developing a high quality protocol, which is provisionally accepted for publication. This process may compensate for publication biases and improve the standard of research.

Overall what I took from the workshop was that although the peer review process may have some limitations, and there are different approaches to how it is carried out, it is vital for the dissemination and advancement of scientific knowledge. The effort, cooperation and integrity of the whole scientific community makes all of us guarantors responsible for this important process.

Visit the Voice of Young Science website for more information, to join the network and find out about upcoming workshops.

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