We’ve been supporting Sense about Science’s work on peer review for some time, sponsoring their workshops and helping to spread the word about the excellent resources they create for early career researchers on peer review, like their guide on ‘The nuts and bolts of peer review’ which we regularly take along to our author workshops around the world.
We were proud to host a recent ‘Nuts and bolts of peer review’ workshop at our offices in London, and we caught up with Huayi and Adam who attended the event to hear their reflections on the day.
Huayi Huang, The University of Warwick
“In searching for insight about the logic of peer review, one hears all sorts of mysterious whispers.”
Some whisper about wonderfully constructive comments, from kind hearted reviewers, provoking significant advances to their thinking. Others whisper about the very human biases and limitations observed – from reviewers with little time, energy, or apparent inclination to do a good job.
As an initial step towards established academic knowledge, the mark of peer review offers reassurance, to the reader seeking valid, significant, and original thinking on a subject. Our current peer reviewing processes reflect the hope, that multiple judgements on a piece of work will enable a rise above our personal biases: as both reviewer, and an aspiring contributor to human knowledge.
“There’s apparently a great need, for good peer reviewers, who are gems for the journals when they are found.”
A journal might turn to a junior researcher for their expertise in the particular research methods or experimental techniques, for example, complementing this with an overview of the field from its high-profile scientists. Alternatively, the 2-4 hours expected by journals, for a thorough peer review of a submission, might more feasibly be undertaken by newcomers to the research area; who can be more delighted and pleasantly intrigued by incremental advances to the scientific record, compared to their more experienced colleagues.
To help restore public confidence and trust in this part of professional research, it is important for us to continue to self-educate about how to conduct helpful peer reviews of other’s work. Editor’s note: check out our Reviewer Guidelines for tips!
Adam Bateson, University of Reading
“The peer review process is daunting.”
Even once a research paper is written, it must pass through reviewers who will scrutinize and potentially pull apart work that you are heavily invested in. This is not to mention the stories of reviewer bias and fraud, which appear both within the scientific and general media. In an age of ‘fake news’ and increasing financial pressures, it is crucial to have faith in the internal accountability that peer review provides.
“Ensuring I have a thorough understanding of the peer review process enables me to defend and explain the scientific process to the public.”
It is easy to assume that only experienced academics have the knowledge and skills to provide high quality reviews. However multiple panellists stressed that this is not necessarily true; young researchers use the techniques and ideas they will be reviewing on a day-to-day basis. Hence they are well placed to identify strengths and weaknesses in different approaches and results.
In addition, early career researchers form a significant proportion of the scientific community, and hence their contribution to peer review is essential to ensure the process remains both thorough and efficient.
“There are personal benefits as well, including an improved ability to assess research critically and raised career prospects.”
A comment that stuck with me came from an editor on the panel; she was happy to have a two-way dialogue with authors. Decisions she made regarding papers were not final, and authors could contest a decision with justification. It is comforting to know this dialogue is possible, particularly as somebody yet to experience peer review.
Huayi Huang is an academic research fellow working at being a bit controversial, at the University of Warwick. After colourful discursions into music, artificial intelligence, and computer science, his 2015 PhD introduced safety scientists: to contemporary challenges to the idea of ‘objective information’.
Adam Bateson (@a_w_bateson) is in the first year of his PhD at the University of Reading modelling the fragmentation and disintegration of summer Arctic sea ice. He began his PhD in September 2016 after completing an integrated Master’s degree in Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge.