Career Tips & Advice

Reviewer profile - Walther Parson

Walther Parson, the researcher responsible for setting up the Austrian National DNA Database Laboratory, takes on our reviewer Q&A

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Walther ParsonWalther Parson holds an associate professorship at the Institute of Legal Medicine, Innsbruck, Austria and an adjunct associate professorship at Penn State Eberly College of Science, PA, USA. He set up the Austrian National DNA Database Laboratory and is an Austrian representative in the European Network of Forensic Sciences (ENFSI) DNA Working Group and the European DNA Profiling (EDNAP) Group. He received international scientific prizes and is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. Walther Parson has authored more than 200 peer-reviewed original articles in the past ten years. He was repeatedly consigned to handle international requests on DNA fingerprinting such as, the DNA identification of the Asian Tsunami-victims, the remains of the Russian Tsar family and historical cases such as, the putative Mozart skull and the remains of Friedrich Schiller.

Walther Parson's main research area is mitochondrial genetics and his team has developed the EDNAP mtDNA population database (EMPOP, www.empop.org), which serves the scientific community as a source of mtDNA variation and as a tool for a posteriori data quality control (QC). In the early 2000's mtDNA data were subject to high profile debates for the observed errors in literature and in databases. The developments in EMPOP now provide researchers with tools to check mtDNA data and the editors of Forensic Science International Genetics (and other journals) have required authors to submit their mtDNA data to EMPOP for QC since 2010. Since that time no more error claims have been articulated on manuscripts in leading forensic journals. 

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1. What do you enjoy most about being a reviewer?
Enjoyment is a strong word here. It is basically a lot of work. But it is important work that helps improve the quality of contributions and thus aids the fields of research and practical work. Badly written papers, or wrong data, may hamper future research. Therefore it is elemental that publications are as correct and good as possible. I enjoy reviewing good papers. They are inspiring and communicating with the authors is then often stimulating.

2. In the time that you've been a reviewer, what trends have you noticed?
Reviewing systems have become more professional, easier to access and more transparent. Some systems however, do not inform reviewers about comments made by other reviewers (which is not the case for FSIG). This is disadvantageous for reviewers. I am much in favor of a generally more open review process.

3. How do you envision the role of the reviewer being different in the year 2020?
I expect changes in that the role of a reviewer needs to be better defined and conducted in a more professional way. Good reviewing takes a lot of time and effort, but it is not generally considered part of a job description. More journals will appear and good reviewers will become rare. The "job of a reviewer" needs to have a clearer description and motivation.

4. What advice would you give to a new reviewer?
Your responsibility is to advance the field. Personal issues between reviewers and authors should not influence a review.

5. What would you change about the peer review process if you could?
I think the basic principle of having two independent reviewers should be maintained. Turnaround times of some reviews are very slow, which is to the disadvantage of all parties involved. This needs to be changed. We have working hours for our jobs as well, that we need to obey to some degree.

To my knowledge, reviewing is not considered part of a job description. Reviewing generally falls into the category of "research" and is thus the responsibility of the individual. The academic and university landscape has changed immensely in the past 15 years, at least in Europe.  Researchers are more than ever required to encash research funds to - in part - finance administration overheads. In this system, free time for reviewing activities becomes more and more scarce.

Personally, I would be in favor of opening up the reviewing system and make it more transparent. The value of good reviewing needs to be brought to the attention of all stakeholders involved. Scientific discussions at conferences are open and authors/reviewers (get to) know each other. Why not transfer this to manuscript reviewing? Initially it would be more difficult to get reviewers to do the job, but if set in a more professional and transparent framework it would improve the situation, avoid delays and would make reviews more objective.

6. What do you think people would find most surprising about your role as a reviewer?
Some people think that reviewing is paid work. I also learned that some people think reviewing is not much work. However, depending on the kind of article, it can be a lot of work. Our group, for example, often reviews papers dealing with mitochondrial (mt)DNA data. The error rate in preparing mtDNA tables for publication is unexpectedly high. These are mostly clerical errors, but also phantom mutations are recorded due to inappropriate lab settings, chemistry artefacts, and other. Scrutinizing such data requires a lot of experience and tools, as well as time. The forensic community is particularly sensitive to error, so we need to get this done right.

7. How do you balance your role as a reviewer with your other roles?
Well, as I said earlier, reviewing is not officially regarded as work in my job description. This is why I have to do it in my free time. In order for reviews to improve, this situation should change.

8. What is your favorite quote?
I don't think that I have a favorite quote.

9. What do you like to do for fun?
Skiing.

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