Helping ECRs to engage with peer review

ECRs reveal their thoughts on the pros and cons of the current referee process at a Sense About Science workshop

When we, at Sense About Science, asked early career researchers about peer review, they responded that they didn't know how to get involved in the reviewing process, or what was required of them. From their comments, it was clear that they wanted some sort of 'Peer Review 101'.

As a result, four years ago, at The Lancet office in London, we ran our first Peer Review: The nuts & bolts workshop for PhD students and postdocs, as part of the Voice of Young Science (VoYS) program.

What is Sense About Science?

Sense About Science is an independent trust based in London. It works with more than 5,000 scientists, from Nobel prize winners to the Voice of Young Science network of postdoctoral researchers and PhD students, to help civic groups including community organisations, media and commentators, weigh up claims about evidence.

Learning about peer review

This April marked our ninth peer-review workshop, this time at King's College London, in partnership with Elsevier and others.

Learning about peer review(1)

At the workshop, the participants split into groups to answer a few questions themselves before hearing from three panelists with experience in editing, reviewing, and working in peer-review management - Dr Elizabeth Moylan, Biology Editor of BioMed Central; Professor John Gilbert, Editor of the International Journal of Science Education and Visiting Professor at King's College London; and Alice Ellingham, Director of Editorial Office Ltd.

During those group sessions, I asked the attendees what they thought were the strengths and weaknesses of peer review. Some said it can benefit the author by improving the paper – but that it can be a slow process and conflicts of interests might lead to biased or deliberately slow reviews. On the benefit (or not!) of anonymous peer review, some participants said it was a strength as it removed potential for bias. Others thought it a weakness, as in a specialized field you would be able to tell who the referee was.

Learning about peer review

I was interested to hear some of the varied ideas participants came up with for alternatives to traditional peer review. These included open review, payment to reviewers, or crowd-sourced review.

During the panel session, the editors on the panel explained how peer review works, from reviewer selection to the final decision on a paper, and told the researchers that they can have an impact on this process. They heard that if they review a paper once and do a good job, they will be asked to review again. They also learnt that part of being a good reviewer is keeping the channels of communication open – it is their responsibility to let the editor know whether they can take on the review and, if they are running late, to ask for an extension.

On the subject of getting work published, the panelists shared the following wisdom with the attendees: Don't be deterred by rejections – resubmit – you need to find the right publication for your research.

In a quick survey after the workshop, participants suggested ways to improve peer-review training in the future. These ranged from the practical suggestion of introducing a wiki guide to peer review, to having some standardization of what is required of reviewers, so that it is easier to offer training. I found it useful to hear from early career researchers themselves about what help and support they need in this important process.

Moving away from the nitty-gritty of being a reviewer, participants asked themselves: "What are the benefits of the peer-review system to the public?" We discussed how knowing whether something is peer reviewed or not can help to weigh up its reliability.

Sense About Science has done a lot of work with Elsevier on sharing the question "Is it peer reviewed?" with people from all walks of life. Together we have produced a public guide to peer review called I don't know what to believe. Even though it's not a flawless system, asking if something is peer reviewed is a good first step towards assessing the evidence behind the claims in an article or study. It is also a question well worth sharing – don't let peer review be a best-kept secret!

Based on the topics discussed and lessons learnt at earlier workshops, early career researchers have compiled a nuts and bolts guide to distil insights from editors, publishers and experienced academics. In the guide, Professor Stephen Curry, Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College London and former Editorial Board member of Elsevier's The International Journal of Biochemistry and Cell Biology advises: "When reviewing, try to remember that you are an author too and be professional and constructive in your approach. That can be hard but don't let your inner nitpicker get the upper hand."

The next Peer Review: the nuts and bolts workshop will be held at the University of St Andrews in Scotland on Friday 21st November, 2014. If you are interested in attending, please email me at On the day, you can also follow the discussions on Twitter using the hashtag #PeerReview.

Author biography

Victoria Murphy
In her role as Program Manager at Sense About Science, Victoria Murphy coordinates the Voice of Young Science (VoYS) program, working with over 20 partners to deliver four media workshops and two peer-review workshops each year for early career researchers. Before joining Sense About Science in September 2011, Victoria worked in Australia in the mining industry and science outreach.

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