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6 tips to secure a peer review invitation

It’s not easy breaking into the world of peer review. It often requires publishing articles and then waiting for editors to contact you. That’s a slow process for early-career researchers, who want to put their foot on the accelerator and benefit from everything peer review has to offer. Luckily, it’s not the only approach, as Immunologist Chelsea Qinjie Zhou soon discovered.

Chelsea, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, USA, isn’t one to sit around waiting for opportunities to come to her. With a go-getter attitude, she meticulously tried different options to secure peer review invitations from top editors in her field - and has contributed a guest post to help other early-career researchers follow suit (the fast way!)

Why heed Chelsea’s advice? Easy: you’ll become a better researcher for doing so.

Peer review provides opportunities to see the latest research trends, learn what journals are looking for in a great manuscript, make professional connections with journal editors, and develop your critical analysis skills.

Check out Chelsea’s story and tips below and sign up for our Publons Academy webinar on September 13th during Peer Review Week. We’ll go through the first four modules of the Publons Academy and help you peer review with confidence in no time!

Chelsea’s story: Securing a peer review invitation

I was three years into my postdoc fellowship when I started looking to peer review for career progression. In the first few weeks, I just googled general tips and sent random emails to the journals where I have published before. It was not working. Therefore I decided to take it seriously and adopt a systemic approach.

Firstly I joined the Publons Academy program to have a better sense of what peer review was all about. With a credential from Publons, I figured my capability to conduct a quality review with "almost zero" experience could be justified.

After finishing the program, I started drafting cold emails and sent to journals of relevance in large volume. I included my area of expertise, the articles I’d published, and my supervisor’s endorsement from the Publons Academy. I carried the motto "quantity trumps quality," i.e., sending 20-30 copies of almost-the-same-email, batch by batch, with the title "peer review opportunity inquiry."

I carried the motto "quantity trumps quality," i.e., sending 20-30 copies of almost-the-same-email, batch by batch, with the title "peer review opportunity inquiry."

I received almost zero replies. Less than 5% of the editors I’d reached out to came back to me stating, "Thanks for your email, we will keep you in mind". This approach was not optimal.

I started to adopt a "seeking advice” approach with a humble and genuine tone as an early career researcher (ECR). I wrote to different editors and said I was looking for suggestions as to how to get more peer review opportunities. I did get a few replies, but honestly, the strategy was still suboptimal given it highlighted my weakness as ECR. Some professors replied, "Focus on good work, publish more papers, you will get there...". Nevertheless, I did get some great advice including:

  1. sign up to the journal's database, which is the very means editors are taking to seek potential reviewers; and
  2. conduct co-review with senior scientists.

I decided to pause on the cold email approach and focus on signing up to journals’ databases. My steps were to:

  1. Analyse Publons' list of collaborating journals and find those in my field
  2. Go to the journal’s website
  3. Select "Submit paper"
  4. Create an account
  5. Edit my bio with relevant keywords
  6. Select "available to be the reviewer"
  7. Move on to the next journal.

Two weeks in, I got one invitation. It was encouraging, however, as a scientist, I could not bear an approach that relies solely on randomness to break into peer review.

Two weeks in, I got one invitation. It was encouraging, however, as a scientist, I could not bear an approach that relies solely on randomness to break into peer review.

I decided to combine the above approaches and personalize the cold emails I had been sending. Rather than go to random journals, I started with the publishers to make sure I had relative comprehensive coverage for all journals possible. For example, I would go to the SAGE website, check all the journals relevant to my field, and create my account for each of them. Then I would email the associated editors, check their research interests, find the common ground we shared and finetune my email accordingly. Instead of coming from a lower stand as ECR, I changed the tone to "volunteering for reviewing" (hard to reject volunteers...) and highlight all the journals I have reviewed for so far.

Along the way, I also followed the advice to co-review with senior scientists.

The reality is, I had very limited co-reviews with my advisor. Given the policy of confidentiality and rounds of disclosures, he would let me help only if the journal had the option of "did anyone in your group help with the review, if so please specify." The bright side? I got two high profile co-reviews which I highlighted in my inquiry email.

One important thing I have to highlight here is, I also nicely "complained" to Publons about the frustrations. Julia (Head of the Publons Academy) emailed me back personally several times giving suggestions and also to connect me to journals they collaborated with. I am very grateful for the support (thank you!).

As invitations slowly came in, I started to shift my focus to producing quality reviews. It could very likely be a trust-building process: since I have started performing peer reviews, invitations continue to come in from the same journals.

As invitations slowly came in, I started to shift my focus to producing quality reviews.

Looking back at the past six months from where I’ve gone from zero to 30 reviews, I think it is not as hard, daunting, and frustrating as I felt along the way. It's just another "one of those" (check Ray Dalio's “Principles for Success” mini-series on YouTube for a morality boost).

Moving forward, I would like to share a few tips for ECR as PR seekers which you may not find at any other sites (yes I did exhaust the google research in the first place):

6 tips to break into the world of peer review

  1. Cold emailing and signing up for journals’ paper-submission-database was so far the most effective method to secure peer review invitations: It's a number's game.

  2. It is time-consuming so systemize your approach to save some sunk time. Also, continually refine your strategy based on the feedback you receive;

  3. Customize your email to "associate editors" to include keywords grasping his/her attention; also make sure you can find his/her contact first (sometimes it feels like cyberstalking...);

  4. Ask your colleagues around for co-review and review referring, but don't rely on it;

  5. Once you have one or two invitations coming in, quality is the key. This is where the Publons Academy helps the most. It's less about the badge or a credential and more about quality control to show you are a qualified and even preferred candidate for peer review. Quality work has compounding factors built-in;

  6. Be attentive and proactive about accepting and producing quality reviews in a timely manner;
    When frustration shows up, treat it as a cyber game; you will get there for sure. Why not treat it as a fun challenge and be a little creative to figure out how to get there quickest?

With the all the above, I hope everyone who reads this can get something out of it. Good luck!


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