Monday, August 26, 2013

Everything you wanted to know about peer review (but no one mentions)

Since the British Ecological Society has published an introduction to reviewing successfully, here’s a short list of additional, less noted, observations about the reviewing process.

For example, excitement for reviewing is proportional to the number of reviews you have done
  • When you are first asked, reviewing feels like a great honour. It is one of the first signs that some group larger than your lab or department recognizes your existence. You will spend an unreasonable amount of time perfecting your review.
This plot would not survive peer review.
  • The novelty will wear off, and your enthusiasm upon receiving a review request will decline, usually in relation to your increasing workload. 
  • Sadly, the urgent need to complete a review may also wane. You will probably submit the first review early, but after that… 
Despite declines in enthusiasm, review quality usually increases with the number of reviews you have done. Practice and experience make a difference. It is also a confidence boost to see your suggestions actually instituted and valued by the authors or editors.

Manuscripts fall broadly into only a few categories. They might be deeply flawed and unpublishable, and therefore easy to review; or they might be uniformly excellent and therefore easy to review. But these are the least common types you will experience. Most manuscripts have both strengths and weaknesses and fall somewhere on the spectrum between “accept” and “reject”. These are the papers that take the most time, since you must weigh the flaws against the strengths, agonize over what changes to suggest, what suggestions might get them around the biggest issues, and what recommendation to give the editor. It’s also easy to fall into Monday morning quarterbacking and make impractical suggestions - why didn’t you design your experiment like this? Why didn’t you measure that? While these points might be reasonable and relevant, but it is important to be clear as to what is within the scope of a revision and what is a bigger picture problem.

Reviewing is of course an important service to ecology. It can also makes a number of subtle contributions to your own professional development. Once the novelty of someone caring about your opinion has worn off, the best part of reviewing may be things you don’t expect.
  • For example, one of the best parts of reviewing a paper in the same area as your research is seeing what literature the authors cite and how they cite them– some real gems you've missed can show up. 
  • Reviewing a paper that falls so exactly in your body of knowledge that you feel completely qualified is a great feeling. It’s nice to be reminded that you have (mostly) mastered a topic you care about.
  • When you are asked to review a paper that combines some topic or method you are well-versed in with ideas or systems or methodologies you are not familiar with, it can be truly eye opening. The funnest papers to review are the ones where you think “I never thought of that!”.
  • Reviewing can give you the clarity to recognize the weaknesses in your own work.

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