Trust in peer review, from the perspective of peer reviewers (Part 1)
The theme of Peer Review Week 2020 is Trust in Peer Review, and this topic is more important than ever with the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the world. The idea is to understand how top peer reviewers approach the peer review process, their experience as reviewers, and talk about how challenges can be addressed. As the entire scholarly publishing world comes together to discuss trust in peer review, we asked experienced peer reviewers to share their views on this year’s theme. Specifically, we asked them to answer the following questions:
- What your experience as a reviewer has taught you, and how you are helping foster trust in peer review as a reviewer?
- Do you think editing services can help support both authors and publishers by reducing the burden for reviewers and improving trust in peer review?
Read on to find out what these peer reviewers have to say about this integral process in the scholarly communications world.
What your experience as a reviewer has taught you, and how you are helping foster trust in peer review as a scientific reviewer?
First of all, let me distinguish between two types of peer-reviewing services:
a. Voluntary post-submission peer-reviewing duty
b. Paid professional pre-submission PR service
Being experienced with both types, I can say that both are not completely equivalent.
In the former, the/a reviewer is responsible for judging whether the authors of a submitted work were able to bring a reasonably useful contribution with proper convincing arguments, unarguable evidences and adequate presentation form. This can be assessed with some aspects of the paper and not necessarily every single tiny detail in the submission. This review is definitely subjective according to the reviewer’s knowledge and experience, as well as the rank and the scope of the target journal. On the other side, the responsibility of a pre-submission peer reviewer is to hint to the authors about scientific issues that can negatively influence the judging criteria of post-submission peer reviewers. Both peer reviewers can influence what a successful contribution looks like when it gets published, and both would attempt to bring out a potentially valuable contribution that is beneficial for the scope of target journal’s readers.
Given that a person is more or less a collection of his experiences, peer reviewing has indeed contributed to my personal development, learning process and even personality. Actually, there is not enough space to list all these aspects, but let me mention a few, which I believe to be precious experiences.
While the authors may benefit from peer reviewers in many obvious ways, actually we also learn something every time we review a contribution. When conducting in-depth reading of a paper, we actually get some personal insights on the author who wrote the article. The author’s personality is obviously reflected in what he writes to a certain degree, his passion, his goal and the way he attempts to achieve it. In this aspect, every serious peer review is a unique, incomparable and valuable experience in its own.
At a scientific level, in many circumstances a peer reviewer is not necessarily as knowledgeable as the contributor in his field of study, at least from the same perspective. Conducting in-depth critical reading lets me learn new things that I start to connect with my own modest knowledge. I find valuable connections between my own specialization and the authors’, which I have never imagined before. Personally, this could be a sign that knowledge (science, or whatever one wants to call it), which looks to be an infinite collection of disconnected pieces of information, is actually much more interrelated than what one may think.
Last but not least, a precious lesson of being both an author and a peer reviewer is that perfection is impossible. A perfect work simply does not exist. There is always room for improvement and the challenge is to achieve partial perfection and finally be satisfied with it.
As a textbook author, I know what it’s like to have negative, unsupportive reviewers who look for reasons to reject your work versus those who’re more supportive. Some of the reviewers I’ve worked with have been fantastic, they don’t hesitate to tell you that there is a mistake here and we want you to improve. They’re supportive because they actually want the work to be published, they want it to look presentable. This is the philosophy I follow. As a peer reviewer, you want to guide authors through and point out if they’re missing vital details; for instance, some missing piece of the puzzle that’s going to prevent their paper from selling. In my view, when you write a paper, it’s important to know what is unique about your paper and what the selling point is. Before you walk in someone’s house, if you see ugly doors and windows you won’t want to enter; on the other hand if it’s beautiful, you’ll definitely enter - that’s how I feel every paper should be written.
In fact, I find that language is very seldom a barrier, missing details on the contrary is a much more serious problem. In fact, there are quite a few problems with authors with English as the native language as they’re not rendering or selling the paper’s ideas effectively. The last paper I reviewed had an author who wanted to render chaotic behavior, but there was nothing convincing in the paper as to why there is chaos or lead to chaos. So I wrote a review saying, “I’m not convinced why this is chaotic, you need to provide at least graphical examples as to why this happens. You have really good and unique ideas, but you have not rendered the main idea about chaos.” I’ve seen authors with fantastic ideas that I have the background to appreciate, but those who don’t have such a background will think this is nonsense and won’t want to read it. My aims are to prevent these problems from happening so that potentially great ideas don’t get lost in space, which is what happens quite frequently. It is my responsibility as a peer reviewer to prevent this from happening. Recently, I had very positive experience with reviewers on my paper on Economic Cycles with my Russian colleagues for Yaroslavl University; the reviewers emphasized where and what the problems were and provided very accurate suggestions how to enhance the paper’s quality and selling features.
I felt a little bit confused when I received the proposition to share my thoughts regarding trust in peer review, because scientific peer review, and science in general is not about trust. Science is not a religion – every suggestion in an article, at least in natural sciences, must be supported by experimental or theoretical data, or by citations. My experience as a reviewer has taught me not to trust any unsupported suggestions in articles, especially when an outstanding improvement in some parameter is claimed. However, my task as a peer reviewer is also to give tips to the author about how to support his/her claim to avoid rejection, even when I am doubtful regarding this claim. Authors should react similarly in response, and any suggestion from peer reviewers shouldn’t be trusted without solid evidence. Therefore, I am helping foster trust in peer review by trying to present convincing arguments to authors, why their suggestion is wrong or inappropriate. Meanwhile, I’m always happy to highlight a good result, or acknowledge the significance of a paper in its research area.
Unfortunately, quite often, peer reviewers accessed by journal publishers have not gained sufficient qualification on the article topic. Reviewers make mistakes, or do not have time to analyze the article in sufficient detail. I have had some cases when the peer reviewers of my articles, which were chosen by the journals, obviously had an undeclared conflict of interest. At the same time, an unbiased look from a qualified peer reviewer is extremely useful in paper preparation. The chances to get a proper peer review strongly increases when using Scientific Editing services.
Do you think editing services can help support both authors and publishers by reducing the burden for reviewers and improving trust in peer review?
Conducting reasonable and good efforts to improve the language and formulation of a scientific article is important not only to respect a peer reviewer’s time, but also to raise the scientific level of the paper. Actually, poor language formulation can be easily interpreted as scientifically poor efforts, which is of course not necessarily true. It may also indicate that the authors did not conduct enough efforts for respecting the time of the peer reviewer. Generally, it is really sad when great scientific achievements are not properly formulated for peers and are still awaiting proper formulation.
Similarly, it is obvious to say that pre-submission scientific peer review services can not only deter a rejection or reduce the number of review rounds in a post-submission peer review, but it can also avoid a rejection from a journal’s associate editor at early stages of submission. While post-graduate students would usually need assistance on how to emphasize their creative contributions, even a highly skilled professor will benefit from a critical eye that can identify what could be missing and may be difficult for his peers to catch and appreciate. Having conducted all possible efforts from the author’s side to improve their submission, this step surely improves the post-submission peer reviewing process and consequently the overall trust in the peer reviewing process.
Editing definitely helps. We want authors to trust how the journals handle submission of papers and they should not get the feeling of being treated unfairly, which can be a big issue in some of the journals. If you’re going to reject a paper, I think it should be done fairly and provide a convincing argument with details and explanations. If there are several mistakes, some overlaps with someone else’s paper, or not enough originality – those are really good reasons for rejecting a paper. Authors should also be told why their paper is being rejected; not just that, they should also be given advices on how to rewrite the paper with recommendations on how they can improve the paper and submit it to a different journal. This is especially true for the novice authors – it’s vital to guide authors through instead of just looking for easy ways to reject their paper. We don’t want authors to leave with hard feelings and reviews should be done fairly; editing can certainly help to smooth out the process.
It would be very helpful if reviewers have published papers before they are accepted as reviewers. In fact, there is a correlation between teaching evaluations and peer reviews, where the right attitude and experience is necessary to be effective. As faculty members, you want your students to learn and guide your students through the learning process and make it as smooth as possible; these people will most likely have the same attitude when they review papers. As for journal editorial members, they should look for some kind of balance in not only how many reviews are done, but most important of all, how fairly they are done. Fair and strict reviews are the most effective ones that do not leave burdens and hard feelings behind.
I am not sure publishers are conscious how much the scientific editing services help them in reducing the load on journal editorial boards and the time spent by journal reviewers. Thanks to my experience with CACTUS, I can see how articles look before and after the Scientific Editing service. This time you may trust me, sometimes the difference is tremendous! I would strongly recommend the editing services, especially to PhD and undergraduate students, and early stage researchers.
Read part two of this thought-provoking round-up, where our expert peer reviewers talk about the main challenges in peer review and if AI and technology can transform the editorial and peer review process.
About our experts
Atiyah Elsheikh, Dr. Rer. Nat.
Independent consultant and researcher for Modelica-based technologies (Mathemodica.com)
Atiyah Elsheikh is a researcher specialized in modeling and simulation with the main focus on object-oriented modeling with Modelica, Dynamical Systems, Optimization, Inverse Problems, Process Engineering, Scientific Computing and Scientific Software Engineering. Application areas included Systems Biology and Cyber Physical Energy Systems. His scientific background includes Mathematics (BSc. 1999 and Diploma 2001 from Kuwait University) and Computer Science (MSc. 2005 and PhD 2012 from RWTH Aachen, Germany). He worked in research for about 10 years (Siegen University, Research Center Jülich and Austrian Institute of Technology). He has published around 30 peer-reviewed papers and has conducted post-submission peer-reviewing for many journals, four of which are Q1-ranked journals. Currently, he is independent consultant and researcher for Modelica-based technologies (Mathemodica.com). Additionally he works as a freelancer scientific reviewer for Cactus Communication since November 2019 with focus on mathematically-oriented papers. He professionally conducted many pre-submission peer-reviewing for high ranked journals including Science and Nature.
Michael A. Radin, PhD
Associate Professor of Mathematics, Rochester Institute of Technology, School of Mathematical Sciences, New York
Michael has spent over two decades providing students and authors with feedback on how to improve their work, with international teaching experience in several universities in Greece and Latvia. Apart from pursuing interdisciplinary research on pedagogical management, pedagogical innovations and pedagogical leadership, he has conducted many seminars and workshops, and has published four textbooks and is working on his fifth as we speak. Michael has also been associated as an editor with Forum Scientiae Oeconomia, Journal of Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology and Life Sciences, and Journal of Proceedings of International Conference on Society, Integration and Education. Furthermore, Michael has taken an active innovative lead in teaching online courses, which has increased his pedagogical learning curve after teaching for 25 years in the traditional classroom atmosphere.
Oleg Sidletskiy, Dr. Ing. Prof.
Head of department in Institute for Scintillation Materials, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine
Oleg has more than 10 years of experience as a scientific reviewer and has conducted around 100 reviews to Crystal Research and Technology, Journal of Crystal Growth, Materials Science and Engineering B, Optical Materials, IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science, Radiation Measurements, Chemical Physics Letters, Crystal Growth and Design, Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics, and many other journals. He has published more than 110 papers and has completed over 80 reviews as a Scientific Reviewer for Cactus Communications.
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