SAGE Advice: Tips From Top Peer Reviewers

SAGE has just announced an extended partnership with Publons, adding a massive 1,000 journals to the network for automated peer review recognition. To help us celebrate, developmental psychologist, Sue Fletcher-Watson, and a handful of other top reviewers for SAGE, shared their background in research and review, and offered some tips for reviewers new to the scene...

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Developmental psychologist Sue Fletcher-Watson discusses peer review and what the world would look like without it.

          Dr. Sue Fletcher-Watson

        Dr. Sue Fletcher-Watson

Developmental psychologist Sue Fletcher-Watson has all the makings of a peer review champion. She is on both the editorial board for SAGE's journal, Autism, and the top peer reviewer for the journal on Publons. She has also picked up a handful of our Peer Review Awards along the way.

Working at the University of Edinburgh, Sue devles into her peer review experience, offers new academics top tips for sharpening their skills, and discusses the much-needed diversity in review.


Publons: Can you start off by telling us a bit about yourself and your research?

Sue: I’m a developmental psychologist. I work in the Patrick Wild Centre at the University of Edinburgh and my research focuses on trajectories of child development, especially those which follow a path that deviates from the norm - as in the case of autism, and babies born early.

You're one of the top reviewers contributing to SAGE's Autism on Publons - how do you feel about that?

Quite pleased - though I suspect there are other reviewers also pulling their weight who just haven’t yet discovered Publons! Peer review is a central component of scientific progress but we have totally inadequate structures for training people in the skills required to do good peer review, and next to no way of rewarding or appreciating peer review. Publons tells people I’m doing a good number of reviews, but whether they are any good is another question...

What would the world look like without peer review?

I dread to think. Pseudoscience really plagues the autism community, and peer review is one of the few bastions we have to defend ourselves against exploitative and scare-mongering quackery. However, even with peer review, we do have a lot of poor quality science slipping through the net - or perhaps I mean non-representative science. It remains easier to publish significant results than null findings, not least because people who get a null finding are quick to blame themselves for failing to “properly” conduct the experiment. I think endeavours like pre-registration and registered reports are going to clamp down on this - and peer review is a key component of these too.

Pseudoscience really plagues the autism community, and peer review is one of the few bastions we have to defend ourselves against exploitative and scare-mongering quackery.

What advice do you have for early career researchers who are reviewing?

Start by co-reviewing with someone more experienced and who you trust to give a scientifically-robust, but kind, review. Remember the work that goes into every new piece of science and be gentle in your wording and tone, while also holding people to a high standard. Judge the paper on what they set out to do, and did do, not on what you might have done instead. You don’t have to sign your reviews but imagine you were going to and check that you stand by everything you wrote.

Judge the paper on what they set out to do, and did do, not on what you might have done instead.

Do you think research would be better or worse off if a more diverse range of people were asked to review papers? Why?

Definitely better off. I work closely with people in the autistic community in my research and I feel that a lot of research in that field would be improved if autistic people, family members of autistic children and practitioners from relevant services - education, health and social care - had a chance to comment on the work we do as academics. It would be important to make a distinction regarding the purpose and remit of reviews from within and outside academia I think, but very valuable if this could be achieved.

Photo of Edinburgh courtesy of Hamish Irvine (CC-by-NC 2.0).