Quality Control in Scientific Publishing: what is it actually like to review papers?

It’s Friday evening and because I’m so rock and roll, or, actually, because I’m so very far behind with jobs, I’m supposed to be spending this evening reviewing papers for four different journals. Confession: I’m actually watching The Craft and writing this instead. I’m hoping it will inspire me to get on with the task at hand.

PhD Comics = So true it’s painful

What is paper reviewing?

Manuscripts (scientific papers/articles) go through a process called ‘peer review’ as part of the publication process. It’s a key part of ensuring the quality of published work, which is then going to reach a much wider and, sometimes, ‘non expert’ audience.

My job as a reviewer is to do a few key things (from my position as a life scientist):

  • Help the editor ensure that the paper is ethical. For instance, I didn’t use animal models when other methods would be more suitable, or that clinical data was misused without permission.
  • Ensure that the paper is reproducible. Is there enough information in the methods that I could take them and try to reproduce the experiment to ensure that it works and can apply to other samples/data?
  • Confirm whether the work is novel and that it adds to the body of scientific work out there. This also means we attempt to identify plagiarism, but I would never claim to be able to know all of the literature out there to ensure this.
  • Respond to whether the work is of a suitable standard for publication. This is very open, but mainly means: is the question they’ve asked of the data the right one? is the experimental design able to answer the research question posed? is the literature and justification presented for interpretation appropriate? Have they correctly reported on the flaws and biases that are inevitably present in any piece of work?

What is the peer review process?

Once you submit a paper (see my post on Writing and Publishing Scientific Papers), your submission will be allocated to an editor. That editor will then select reviewers from (usually) a combination of the reviewers you’ve suggested when you submitted and the list of reviewers they have on file. One of the reasons it’s so important to choose a journal that matches what you’re submitting is that you want to make sure the reviewers they have on file are going to have the knowledge and expertise in your topic area.

Once the editor has picked their reviewers they will then email out an invitation to review to those scientists. Usually, at this point, the invitee can see the abstract and make a decision whether they have the knowledge and skills to be useful in undertaking the review. I get some truly random invites that I turn down linked to topics I know nothing about and so it is really important that as individuals we’re aware of the scope of our practice and don’t overstretch. Once the reviewer has accepted they then get access to the whole paper and a deadline for submitting their response, usually ~ 2 weeks.

When you submit your review you have to justify your responses and give specific feedback for the authors to address. There are four main categories of response:

  • Accept without revision
  • Accept with minor revisions
  • Accept with major revision (maybe able to request that the paper is re-reviewed as part of this)
  • Reject

Now this is where I have to fess up! I am great at the accepting the invite part. I am not as good at getting the job done because of my other work load. I am probably one of the reasons that your paper reviews take AGES to come back. Sorry about that.

What is it like to review papers and how do I start?

To be honest, I usually have a feel for how it’s going to play out from the abstract. This is why a well-written abstract is so crucial: it gives a really good idea about how the author is going to be able to present their chain of thought and to be succinct in what is a relatively short format of ~4000 words for most papers.

If the paper has good concepts but it needs extra data or re-writing to get there, I will usually take a fair amount of time to give a lot of comments. I know this sounds perverse. However, the more comments I give you, if I give major corrections, the more worthy I think your paper is. It takes time to give feedback and I don’t put in the energy if it doesn’t have merit.

I’m not a rejecter. I don’t often completely reject papers unless they are clinically unsafe. This sometimes happens when non-clinical researchers make clinical suggestions in terms of antibiotic use when they are not qualified to do so.

Two final things.

One – If I spend a lot of time giving a heap of comments to try and make the submission better and it comes back to me without any attempt being made at most of them, I will a) remember as not that much time will have passed and b) not be very happy that my time spent trying to make the work better has been ignored.

Two – Lots of people believe we are paid or get some benefit from reviewing papers. We don’t. We don’t even get a discount for submitting to the journals we review for. The benefit you get is learning and reflecting about what makes a good article and therefore how to make your own work better.

Right! I’d better get on with reviewing those papers now………………….

Top Tips:

  • Think carefully about who you suggest as reviewers.
  • Some submission pages have options to list people who you don’t want to review as they are competitors within your field. This isn’t such a big deal in my world but, if you’re doing pure research, it’s worth considering.
  • Take the opportunity to start reviewing papers early in your career. It will help you think about your own writing and will improve your submissions.
  • Don’t take reviewers’ comments personally – use the gin and tonic method described under Don’t Get Disheartened in my previous post. They are there to help you, so take the constructive and let the rest wash over you.
  • If you are a reviewer remember our job is to be constructive, try not to be ‘Reviewer Three’.

All blog opinions are my own

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