How can you become a peer reviewer?

Prospective PRs need to have—or be working toward—a PhD in a relevant discipline, and they need to have published papers in that discipline. Most academics become a PR when a journal editor invites them to review a paper for their journal. However, this can happen in several different ways. The most common requests for PRs come from editors of journals in which the PR has previously published. However, requests can also result from recommendations from professors and department supervisors. For example, Stephen recounted that he was invited to review a paper after a professor within his department, who was also a journal editor, noted that a submission he had received was aligned with Stephen’s research area. In another instance, the chair of Stephen’s department received an email request from a journal editor asking for PRs; thus, Stephen was recommended as someone who could review submissions pertaining to the topic. Sara explained a case in which a journal editor found her details on her departmental website; he had been looking at the website because he knew that her supervisor worked on similar subject material to that of the paper in question.

While many PRs receive requests based on a connection with either the supervisor or professor, this is not always the case. According to Sara, journal editors can sometimes identify suitable PRs based on the information academics provide about their specific subject areas when setting up their author accounts on the journal’s website. Journal editors may also search the Internet for authors of particular topics; for example, Sara was asked by a journal editor, who was previously unknown to her, to conduct a PR on a very specific subject about which she had previously published a paper. Additionally, Geraldine, who also works as a journal editor, reported that “an academic can approach a journal editor to offer their services as a PR, and they will be added to a database of potential PRs.” Therefore, you can become a PR in a variety of ways providing you have the right credentials, contacts, or even better, both.

How many reviews do peer reviewers conduct and how do they choose which ones to do?

The PRs’ responses indicate that relatively new PRs—typically junior academics—review one to two manuscripts per year, while more experienced PRs—senior academics—conduct between four and 12 reviews each year. However, even senior academics will usually conduct no more than four peer reviews per journal each year. In each case, the PRs receive an email from the journal editor, which inquiries about whether they would be interested in undertaking a review, and it typically includes the article. PRs do not have to accept every paper they are offered; indeed, all four PRs concurred that they only agree to conduct a review if they have sufficient expertise and interest in the subject, which according to Sara, “might not be in all aspects of the paper; for example, you might be a subject expert, but not an expert with the methodology.” According to Judith, it is acceptable for PRs to decline the paper if they can’t meet the timescale requested because of other commitments, although journal editors will often be flexible to get a good PR on board.

What are the perceived benefits and responsibilities involved in conducting peer reviews?

Even though conducting peer reviews is entirely optional, as publishing scientists, academics are generally expected by the academic community to participate in the process of peer reviewing voluntarily, because it is an essential aspect of the scientific process. The PRs thus perceive that the role brings many responsibilities, which they take very seriously. However, they also perceive there to be many benefits to the PR role. The following lists show a good balance between the number of perceived benefits and responsibilities of the PR role.

 

BenefitsResponsibilities
participate in the scientific processprovide unbiased feedback
become familiar with other PRs’ expectationsensure that research appearing in the publication is theoretically or conceptually appropriate
put their service to each journal on their CVs and profiles, indicating their investment in the fieldmaintain confidentiality and avoid personal comments or criticisms
receive recognition and status in the field (depending on the status of the journal)provide a thorough, timely, and robust review
experience satisfaction for helping in the process of getting good quality and interesting research publishedoffer clear guidance as to where improvement is needed
improve their writing and publishing skills by observing their peersprovide a constructively critical, useful, and relevant review that draws on their expertise in the area
learn about current research in the fieldencourage excellent research and ideas that push the boundaries of our knowledge

How does a peer reviewer feel when conducting a peer review?

While conducting the review, the PRs reported to experience feelings ranging from interest, excitement, engagement, and pleasure, when they receive a new manuscript, to frustration, deflation, and annoyance, when a piece of work is poorly executed. For example, Sara stated, “If the English is not very good, I get frustrated and annoyed because it is careless, and I may not be able to work out what they did in their study without puzzling over it for hours.”

However, problems with the English language in manuscripts were not cited as the most difficult parts of being a PR. For example, Stephen found it more problematic to find diplomatic ways to tell the author(s) “they have got something completely wrong or that they have just done bad work,” adding that it is difficult to know how much detail to go into and how to balance the amount of time you spend on the review versus the risk of poor science being published. In addition, Geraldine highlighted the difficulty in finding whether the statistical methods they have used are appropriate without going into great detail and reading up a lot about it, which is not always feasible. The PRs are also concerned with ensuring that their feedback is constructive and useful to the authors for the development of their paper.

Regarding what the PRs consider the easiest part of a peer review, Geraldine reported that “not much of it is easy, as it is an intellectually demanding process if done well.” However, she added that the excitement of seeing new pieces of work makes accepting a paper for review the easiest part of the whole process. Stephen found making the decision about what to recommend (e.g., revise and resubmit or reject) the easiest part of the review because this usually becomes clear after reading the paper a few times.

When asked about their enjoyment of the role, the PRs’ responses were somewhat mixed. Those in the earlier stages of their career felt it not overly enjoyable because they consider that a journal editor is unlikely to send a high-quality submission to a relatively inexperienced scholar. Similarly, if they receive a submission that is likely to be rejected upon review (based on initial screening), it is likely to be sent to a more junior scholar. The PRs enjoyment lessens if they feel that the authors of the manuscript are not engaging in the review process fully and professionally.

In many cases, the PRs’ level of enjoyment rests heavily on the quality of writing because a poorly written paper leads to frustration that the authors, whether native or non-native speakers of English (NSEs or NNSEs), failed to ensure the paper was well written before submitting it. The PRs’ enjoyment is also affected by how well the PR understands the methods used in the paper, which could also be determined by the quality of the English used. Stephen pointed out the arduousness of finding diplomatic ways to point out fairly evident flaws in sub-par work; however, as a junior academic, he remained hopeful that this would become easier with experience.

The most satisfying aspects of the PR role include being able to read good research papers, seeing the substantial improvements from the initially submitted version to the final version, and learning that the journal accepted the paper for publication.  

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