Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2014 and has been refreshed for Peer Review Week 2017.
Peer review is one of the cornerstones of scientific publishing, and it is the only method of assessing the quality of scientific papers. Peer review is based on the principle that any research must be subjected to the scrutiny of experts before it is published and reaches the larger scientific and non-scientific community. Peer reviewers are considered to be experts who have a thorough knowledge of the field and can evaluate a study based on its merits and shortcomings and help the editor reach a decision about whether the paper should be accepted, rejected, or sent back to the author for revisions. By helping editors decide what to publish, the peer review process ensures the quality and credibility of the papers as well as of the journal itself.
As researchers publish more papers, their credibility as authors builds up, and they start getting invitations from editors to review manuscripts. In niche fields, authors often get review invitations sooner in their career than they expect, and they are sometimes unsure about accepting such requests. Authors receiving invitations to review a manuscript for the first time are often unsure of whether they should accept the invitation. Some of their doubts and concerns revolve around the following questions:
- Am I experienced enough to be considered an expert in the field?
- Will I be able to do justice to the paper I am reviewing?
- Why should I put in so much time and effort in reviewing? I’d rather devote that time for my own research.
- How will I benefit from peer review?
- How should I go about evaluating the paper?
- How should I write the reviewer report?
This series of articles aims to answer these questions, provide some tips, and thereby introduce first time reviewers to some of the best practices that should be followed by peer reviewers.
Peer review is a purely voluntary service and there is no monetary compensation involved. Additionally, peer review requires a considerable investment of time and effort on the part of the reviewer. It is, therefore, not unnatural for first time reviewers to feel hesitant to take on this responsibility and feel that they would rather invest the time and effort in their own research. However, you must remember that other reviewers have provided you with this service when you have submitted your manuscripts. Thus, as a part of the scientific community, every scientist is expected to reciprocate to help continue the smooth functioning of the journal publication system.
What benefits does peer review offer to the reviewer?
Although peer review does not give the reviewer any economic benefits, the other tangible benefits are considerable. Besides being a great addition to a CV, being a peer reviewer is good for the author’s reputation as he or she is considered an expert in the field. In recent times, peer reviewers have started receiving credit for their work through Publons, a company that rewards researchers for putting their peer-review activity online. Moreover, becoming a peer reviewer automatically makes them a part of the network of editors and reviewers in the field and increases their chances of collaboration. Additionally, peer review is a two-way learning process. Reviewers stay updated about new developments in their field and come to know about many different ideas, techniques, and approaches from the papers they review. This broadens their outlook and helps them in their own research. Younger scientists who take on review work get to understand the reviewers’ perspective and form a clear idea of what exactly a reviewer is looking for in a paper. This helps them when writing their own papers.
Should I take on review work?
Now that you are assured of the rationale behind taking up review work and of the benefits that it offers, you would probably be more open to accepting invitations for review. However, it is at this point that doubts about your own capability might creep in. Reviewing someone else’s work is indeed a big responsibility, and you should ensure that you are equipped to do so. Before accepting a review invitation, it is important to assess three things:
(1) Whether you have the necessary expertise: To be a reviewer, you must have sufficient familiarity with the topic to be able to evaluate the scientific quality, originality, significance of the results, and the impact of the research presented.
(2) Whether you can complete the review on time: Timeliness is always appreciated in review work and you should not take on a review if you are already loaded with work and are unsure of being able to complete it within the deadline set by the journal editor.
(3) Whether you have any conflict of interest: If you have a conflict of interest - for instance, if you are a friend or direct competitor of the author - or if you are a co-author on any of the author’s previous papers, you should inform the editor and decline the invitation to review.
However, if you are familiar with the topic, feel that you will be able to complete the review on time, and do not have any conflict of interest, you should definitely go ahead and accept the review invitation.
Once you are aware of how to decide whether to accept a review invitation, the next step is actually conducting the review. For this, you must understand the roles and responsibilities of a reviewer, know how to assess the quality of a study, and finally, form a clear idea of how to write a reviewer report. To understand this, read the next segment of this series: Reviewing a scientific manuscript responsibly.