In celebration of Peer Review Week 2022, we asked Andrés Estradé, Research Assistant at Kings College London, about Peer Reviewing.
What is Peer Review, and why is it important?
Peer Review is a self-regulating process to safeguard and enhance the transparency, integrity, and quality of published scientific findings. Typically, prior to publication in academic journals, manuscripts of scientific reports are evaluated by researchers (“peer reviewers”) who were not involved in the process of study design, data collection and analysis, and writing of the manuscript, and who have experience relevant to the field of study or research methods employed. The peer review process can involve academics from all over the world, and at different phases of their professional careers, from early-stage to senior researchers. Often, a scientific manuscript is evaluated by at least two independent reviewers prior to publication.
Peer reviewers provide written feedback to both authors of the original manuscript and to journal editors on the strengths and limitations of the work submitted for publication. Peer review is a key component of scientific publishing as it helps journal editors in making informed decisions on whether to accept or reject the manuscript, as well as helping authors to improve their work. As such, peer reviewers provide a fresh and critical new look into manuscripts.
Importantly, in their role of external evaluators, peer reviewers can help identify potential issues or points of concern that might jeopardize the relevance or integrity of published scientific reports. Peer review can adopt many different forms and variations. In many ways, the peer review process naturally extends beyond the publication of the manuscript, as scientific articles and findings are subject to critique and review by the scientific community throughout all their life cycle.
The theme of this year’s Peer Review Week is ‘Research Integrity: Creating and Supporting Trust in Research’. How do you think we can create and support trust in research through the peer review process?
Editors, researchers, and peer reviewers are under high pressure due to the large body of scientific knowledge that is being produced every year. In this context, safeguarding the integrity, objectivity, and relevance of scientific data and reports constitute a growing challenge as new and complex methods of data analysis are being developed, and specialised areas of research emerge. A high-quality and reliable peer review system is essential for enhancing trust in scientific findings. As science evolves, so should the peer review system. For example, ways in which the peer review system might adapt is via the incorporation of novel approaches, such as making online pre-print publications available and open for reviews by the scientific community, or via the incorporation of automated checks using computer software to speed up some of the components of the peer review process. The scientific community should not be afraid to test new ideas for expanding and improving the peer review process. After all, experimentation is the essence of the scientific method. In addition, I strongly believe that peer reviewers should be adequately acknowledged for their time and contributions, to encourage both highly motivated early-stage and experienced senior academics to be involved in the process.
As an early career researcher, what influenced you to be a peer reviewer and what impact has it had on your own work?
As an early career researcher, my motivations for being involved in peer reviewing are multiple. On the first hand, it provides an opportunity to learn and keep up to date with new developments in my research fields of interest. Being a peer reviewer has also helped me to expand my academic writing skills, for example, by improving the clarity of my writing and by allowing me to anticipate the type of comments and aspects of a manuscript that peer reviewers might be observant of when reviewing my own submissions. Overall, being involved in peer reviewing is great opportunity for learning about how the academic publishing system works, an essential skill for early-stage researchers interested in publishing their own reports.
What is your approach when it comes to peer reviewing?
The first important step is the selection of manuscripts to review. For early career researchers, this can be challenging as the opportunities are at first limited, and the initial invitations for peer reviewing might not completely fall within one’s main area of expertise. As a result, the first manuscripts often take a longer time to review, and researchers need to be prepared to allocate enough time to the process. Because of this, during the initial stages it can be of great help to co-review papers with more experienced researchers who can provide supervision and valuable insights into the peer reviewing process. Over time, early career researchers can develop their own personal system for peer reviewing that they feel comfortable with. Eventually, researchers are often able to be more selective in their choices, as they receive more invitations for peer reviewing than they can realistically accept.
In my own approach to peer reviewing, I like to conduct one general initial reading to familiarise myself with the manuscript and identify general points for feedback, followed by a more detailed analysis of each section of the manuscript, including tables, figures, and supplementary materials. I like to take enough time to go through the manuscript and highlight both the positive aspects, as well as those where improvement might be required. To me it is very important to provide authors and editors with clear and concrete comments and suggestions, as this is what I like to receive whenever I submit a paper for publication. Importantly, I believe all feedback should be objective and fair, and be written in a respectful and constructive way. Finally, I believe reviewers should acknowledge their own limitations, and make it clear for journal editors if there is any aspect of the manuscript that falls outside of their expertise.
Can you give us a few examples of what you think makes a good peer reviewer?
I believe a good peer reviewer needs to adequately balance being objective and critical of the work being assessed, while also providing positive and constructive feedback that acknowledges the time and dedication that authors have allocated to the project and manuscript. Scientific research is a very time-consuming process, that demands a lot of work and commitment from researchers. As such, a good peer review provides a fair assessment, highlighting the positive aspects of the work, while also identifying the limitations and providing clear guidelines on how these can be improved.
Why do you think early career researchers should get involved in peer reviewing, and how can they go about this?
For early career researchers, getting involved in Peer Reviewing is important in many ways. First, it helps researchers to improve their academic writing and critical analysis skills. It also provides valuable insights into how the academic publishing system operates, and helps researchers to build connections with journals and expand their academic curriculums. It also provides opportunities for making contributions to scientific knowledge on their fields of study or interest. In this sense, the final published articles are the product of the collaborative work of many agents: authors, editors, peer reviewers, founding sources, and participants. Each has a key role to play in the expansion of scientific knowledge.
Being a peer reviewer can be initially daunting for early career researchers. One helpful method for overcoming this and making the first steps is to co-review papers alongside more experienced researchers who can provide supervision and valuable insights into the peer reviewing process. Over time, early career researchers can build up their confidence and develop their own personal system for peer reviewing that they feel comfortable with.