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Early career researcher - Susanne van der Veen - tells us about Peer Review: The Nuts and Bolts.

On 13 May 2016, Publons sponsored a peer review workshop for early career researchers hosted by our friends at Sense about Science. The workshop aimed to help young researchers understand the world of peer review. Susanne van der Veen, a PhD student at the University of Salford, tells us what she thought of the day, and peer review generally.

What is peer review, and how does it work? As a newbie in academia I had a lot of questions about what is expected when I peer review and how I get my papers through the peer review process. So I began looking for some answers and direction both to help me to become a peer reviewer and a better writer. The peer review workshop: The Nuts and Bolts run by the charity Sense about Science was a really good opportunity to get some of these answers, and it turned out to be much more.

The day consisted of a combination of group work and presentations from editors of leading journals and Sense about Science. This combination of top down and bottom up knowledge-sharing between students, editors, and experienced writers really helped me form an understanding about all aspects of peer review. To give you a bit of a feel of the day, here are some insights into the development of my thoughts about peer review throughout the event.

It all started with the question: do we need peer review? Can't we just be critical readers ourselves? After all, as academics, we might be naturally skeptical about other people’s work and can appreciate the value of a paper in our own field. But what about practitioners or research outside your field?

In my previous work as a physiotherapist, it was necessary to keep up with the literature and choose treatments based on published evidence. However it was quite a challenge to get a good overview of all the literature, to weigh up different conclusions and to match the general findings with a single patient. Therefore, I don't believe removing the process of peer review, which provides assurance of the quality of science and statement of conclusions, is a good idea. The need for peer review could be especially true in health sciences and clinical fields, where small or uncertain results can be interpreted by patients, practitioners, and doctors as the holy grail that will solve their problem. Obviously this can be quite dangerous if results are incomplete or the treatment needs more research. So yes, I think we do need a system to evaluate and assure the quality of papers, results and publications that go into the real world.

A different question we can ask is: if the current way peer review is carried out by journals is the best way in such a fast moving world? It is definitely a time-consuming business, not always very transparent and doesn’t necessarily catch fake or false data. So, what are the alternatives?

Publons at Sense About Science Peer Review workshop

Perhaps one way to make the whole process faster and more transparent is open reviewing. This would mean that papers get published before they are picked by a journal or have been reviewed. In this alternative process, the newest findings are open for experts in the field the moment the results are ready, which could speed up the research in general.

With open review, experts can ask questions and seek clarifications openly, which means the public can actually see what the concerns are, and take part in the discussion. While this seems to solve multiple issues voiced about peer review, it does come with some reservations. Could it mean that we can all just put our findings and thoughts on the internet? How would you find the breaking news about research? How do you know a voluntary reviewer is legitimate? Why would people invest a lot of time reviewing these articles? What if you find something interesting, but outside your field - do you still have to wait until someone (hopefully an expert in the field) can start that review?

In conclusion, I don’t think we should totally lose the system of journals filtering what gets published. However, open publishing and peer review platforms, alongside paper publication could speed up the public availability of science. This could help make peer review a more open business that even gives reviewers credit for the work they put into the papers. Some journals like Frontiers have begun publishing both reviews and papers. Other platforms like Publons publish reviews as well as help reviewers to get the recognition they deserve for their efforts. Publons has shown that by helping researchers track, verify and showcase peer review work, we can speed up the publication process while maintaining the quality control benefits of peer review.

After a full afternoon of discussion, lots of eye-opening input from experts as well as researchers just starting out in academia, I have formed lots ideas about what peer review actually is and why it is necessary. I really enjoyed the open platform and meeting people from different fields, who are in the same situation as I am: in the end we all want to become better scientists with good publications. Let’s get started with peer review!

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