At Royal Society Publishing we recognise that peer review is constantly evolving and is an area where innovation is encouraged to reduce biases within the process and increase diversity. Early career researchers (ECRs) often play a central part in peer review, and it is commonplace for ECRs to be involved typically under the guidance of an advisor or jointly with a colleague. To explore how ECRs contribute to peer review for Peer Review Week, we asked Open Biology reviewers to share their thoughts and experiences of collaborative peer review and its importance in making the process more accessible to the wider research community.
1. How were you taught how to peer review? What are the pros and cons of how you were taught how to review?
Peer reviewing is hardly ever explicitly taught! It is generally assumed a scientist with some years of experience will have received enough peer reviews of their own papers to understand how a typical peer review should be structured.
However, several things we do in our day-to-day work help prepare us for the peer review process. Simply reading a range of post-review papers in our field helps us understand the standards required by reviewers. Furthermore, journal clubs act as a way for scientists, at all stages in their career, to assess a paper in a similar manner to peer-review and to discuss and debate their findings with fellow scientists. In this way, we can build an understanding of what is acceptable criticism and what feedback may be unnecessarily harsh. Some labs are starting to post their journal club reviews online, for example as comments in BioRxiv articles, which is a very interesting idea to help democratise the process of peer review. One of the downsides of only receiving peer reviews from two or three people is that one especially negative reviewer, or a reviewer who may not have grasped the contents of the paper fully, can have a major influence on the steps taken by the editor or the paper’s authors. By ‘crowd sourcing’ a larger number of reviews, a general consensus view on the paper can be more easily reached and overly critical reviewers can have less of an impact.
2. How have you engaged yourself or encouraged other early career researchers to participate in peer-review?
Either by asking junior members of my team to co-review papers with me or, as a reviewing editor, directly ask early-career researcher to formally participate in the review. Additionally, organising journal clubs is an effective way to go through the review process with the lab.
3. What are the benefits to co-reviewing in your view?
The merging of two viewpoints is necessarily going to be more insightful than any individual ones for a number of reasons. Co-reviewers can discuss their assessments of the paper, assess whether their feedback or criticisms are fair, reasonable, and actionable, and pool a greater range of ideas into the peer review. Furthermore, co-reviewing gives junior scientists the opportunity to improve their peer reviewing skills and to give them a clearer perspective of the standard their published work will be held to.
4. What could journals and/or institutions do to open up peer review to early career researchers and underrepresented groups?
In an approach already taken by some journals, a postdoc could be nominated as early career reviewer. This requires the PI to send a support letter to the journal to explain why they are suitable. Once approved, this person can be selected directly from the reviewing editor and formally participate to the review process. Furthermore, initiatives to encourage posting peer reviews as comments on pre-printed papers could give early career researchers and underrepresented groups a say even when they haven’t been explicitly asked for feedback.