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Quality in peer reviewing: good soil is needed for good fruits

In this guest post Dr. Marie Lisandra Zepeda Mendoza, Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, discusses peer review recognition and training and shares her views on #QualityInPeerReview, the theme of this year's Peer Review Week.

By Dr. Marie Lisandra Zepeda Mendoza
Twitter: @MLisandraZM

“Peer review” is a stamp of quality research. In science, there is a strong push for peer-reviewed output, with 89% of academics recognizing it as (very) important [1], [2]. However, the recognition does not go the other way around. Although it is not the journal but the academic experts in the field that make this important contribution to the research community, an alarming 84.8% of the reviewers [1], [2] feel that their work is not recognized enough. Some of the reasons for this include the fact that sometimes it is PhD students doing the review that their supervisor was asked to do and submits without crediting the student (this phenomenon is called “ghost writing”). Another reason is that there is no direct tangible or measurable payment for it (be it monetary or in the form of an index that is valued by funding agencies).

In this unbalanced situation, one can wonder what it is then that drives a researcher to act as reviewer. To try to get some more insights into the various aspects surrounding peer review, I attended the “Peer Review: The Nuts & Bolts Workshop”, organized by Sense about Science in London, 21st June 2019.

Several answers have been given as to why a reviewer does this service, including that it is a way to reciprocate for reviews in their work and to stay updated in their field. Another one of the main reasons is that it ensures the quality and integrity of publications.

In general, academics avoid publishing in journals that do not implement a peer review process in their service.

Being a scientist and a gardening lover, I like to say that “good soil is needed for good fruits” as an analogy that a quality peer reviewing process (the good soil) is need to ensure the publishing of a quality paper (the good fruit). Quality goes all the way through in the research life-cycle, from study design, to data generation and interpretation, to publishing… and it should also include the step of peer reviewing. This is why quality is the theme of this year’s Peer Review Week, a global initiative for individuals, institutions, and organisations, to celebrate the essential role of peer review in scholarly communications.

Any academic knows that their work is heavily influenced by other studies in their field. In the very common situation where a researcher develops a new project based on a previous publication, it is crucial that such a publication is of high standard. Everything should be reliable. Hence, peer reviewing is an opportunity to ensure that adequate information is available in your field, because it is very likely that you will need it later on. Everyone wants to publish in and use the publications from quality journals. However, it can be easy to miss the point that quality journals require quality peer review.

Publons’ Global State of Peer Review Survey evaluated the academics’ satisfaction with their peer review process experiences. The results of the survey showed that there is still plenty of room for improvement, particularly in terms of quality of review reports [1]. One of the main reasons for this could be that in general there is little training for this task, which is a particular challenge for early career researchers.

One of the possible actions a reviewer can do to improve their skills on this matter is to ask for editorial feedback on their report. During the Nuts and Bolts workshop I attended, all the invited panel of editors from major publishers stressed how open they are to communication with the reviewers and the authors. “We are people as well, not machines, we very much encourage our reviewers to contact us if they have any kind of request or question”, one of them said. However, communication between editors, authors and reviewers might not always be optimal. There are also some good peer reviewing training resources that can be taken. For example, the freely available online Peer Review Master Classes from Nature and the Publons Academy.

A compact but useful list of things to keep in mind to make a quality peer review report includes the following:

  • Do more than one read-through, for example, one to analyse for content and another one for readability. Do not get distracted by grammatical errors or typos, as that is on the editorial office to correct. Focus mostly on the science.
  • Make sure that the methodology allows for reproducibility. This means, look for availability of the data, proper statistical analyses, study design and use of controls.
  • The manuscript should not simply describe the results. A proper discussion should interpret the results in terms of the study aims and the available literature, with a discussion of its implications in the field and potential future avenues to pursue.
  • Measure the novelty of the study and the importance of the results. What kind of audience would be most interested in that kind of study? This point is particularly important for very high quality journals.
  • Ensure that ethical requirements are met.
  • Evaluate the reference selection, keeping in mind that an author overusing self-citing shows as a poor behaviour as that of an anonymous reviewer suggesting the citation of their own work arguing that the authors are missing that very important element.

Hopefully, the current efforts by organizations such as Publons to make peer review better recognised will lead to an academic environment where quality is found all the way through the research life-cycle, so that the sweet fruits of knowledge reach the general public in a smoother and timelier fashion.

[1] Publons, “Report for Publons State of Peer Review 2018 Survey.” 2018.

[2] Publons, “2018 Global State Of Peer Review.” 2018.

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