An ECR’s guide to peer review

As an early career researcher, how do you get invited to review manuscripts?

5 min read
An ECR’s guide to peer review

As an early career researcher (ECR), you've heard of peer review; but what is it precisely? Why is it important for you to get involved, and how do you get started? Here, we provide you with the tools to get on the right track and make your peer reviewing activities as efficient as possible.

Peer review is the process by which expert researchers (“peers”) assess a manuscript and provide feedback on the originality and quality of other researchers’ work. As such, peer review ensures that we expand our collective scientific knowledge with correctly interpreted conclusions, that are based on high quality research.

In a previous blog post, we highlighted that the current peer review system is under a lot of pressure, as the number of manuscripts requiring expert review outnumbers the number of trusted reviewers considered by editors. The recent COVID-19 outbreak has only exacerbated this, with a staggering 23,000 new manuscripts submitted in a few months’ time, all of which need reviewing. Some of these manuscripts have been discussed in news media outlets prior to peer review. Some of these manuscripts are preprints. Preprints are online, open access scientific manuscripts posted by authors on dedicated servers prior to submission, peer review and publication by an academic journal. Initiatives from publishers, research institutes, and individual scientists are now attempting to cope with the enormous number of preprints, but assessing their quality for publication in peer-reviewed journals requires more peer reviewers.

“After organizing the voluntary peer review of COVID-19 preprints and publishing these reports online, we published three ‘highlight’ summaries of preprints on a weekly basis in a high impact journal” – Ewoud Compeer

This is the perfect time to get involved in peer review as an ECR and aid in ensuring the quality of disseminated work. In return, you may learn new and best practices in experimental and computational methodologies, keep up with the latest research in your field, become a better writer, and build on the explanation and/or argumentation of your own work. It can also help demonstrate your expertise in a topic, strengthen your CV, and boost visibility in your field, thereby expanding your professional network. It might also create opportunities for you in ways you would never have predicted as illustrated by included quotes from fellow ECRs. As a peer reviewer, you contribute to a constructive and iterative process that will help strengthen the manuscript, and as such aid scientific progress.

“After reviewing two manuscripts on the same protein, I was asked to write an Insight article to highlight the new findings of both papers upon acceptance.”  – Nele Haelterman

A recent twitter poll identified that the main reason for not getting involved in the peer review process was a lack of time or experience. However, we propose that after appropriate training, you will be able to efficiently review manuscripts with confidence. As reviewing is often inadequately acknowledged or valued, very few institutions provide any kind of official training for peer review. This is probably why in two independent surveys, 65% and 77% of academics mentioned wanting to be more formally trained in peer review. This sentiment was also highlighted in a recent report, showing that researchers believe that the bottleneck in peer review can be solved with more training and better recognition. Luckily, a variety of peer review training programs, resources and guidelines are freely available online. In Box 1, we have compared the training programs provided by Elsevier, ACS Peer Reviewer Lab, Publons Academy, Genetic Society of America, Voice of Young Science (VoYS), and Nature. From our experience, the overall winner was Publons Academy, which not only provides video training content, but also includes a mentor to provide feedback on reviews written by the trainee on a preprint or an article post-publication.

We also recommend complementing your transition to independent peer reviewer by honing your skills in the following ways:

  • Review preprints in journal clubs with colleagues or fellow trainees at your department/institution and post these reviews on PREreview.
  • Ask your supervisor or mentor to officially include/invite you to co-review manuscripts with them.
  • Voluntarily perform post-publication peer review on papers (some journals allow this in the comments section at the end of papers) and preprints (most if not all preprint platforms allow commenting under preprints from scientists and the public). For example, Prelights is a voluntarily formed global ECR group supported by the Company of Biologists, where prelighters perform public review of select preprints.

Program Quality of Training User Friendliness Personalization Certification Inclusion into reviewer pool
Elsevier 5 5 2 5 1
ACS Peer review lab 4 5 2 1 2
Publons 5 5 5 5 3
Genetic Society of America 5 3 5 1 5
Voice of Young Science 3 3 4 1 1
Nature 5 5 2 5 1

Box 1. Comparison of peer review training programs

Upon completion of various peer review training programs, we scored these programs on a scale of 1 to 5 (where 5 represents exceptional training).

Once you feel confident that you can provide valuable and efficient peer review, it is time to “get into the system”. First, create an “Open Researcher and Contributor ID” (ORCID) that uniquely identifies your academic contributions. Nowadays, most universities require you to have one when you publish, so make sure you have one and keep it up-to-date.

“Critically evaluating articles and the way they were written has helped me develop my own writing skills.”  – Nafisa Jadavji

The next step is to increase your visibility, so editors can more easily find you and identify your research expertise:

  • Present your data and network at conferences. Editors attend these as well, and may be impressed by your work/knowledge/communication skills.
  • Generate a personal website. Various companies are able to help you build and host your website without any coding skills, including the likes of WordPress and Strikingly (free), or Wix and Squarespace (paid).
  • Have an up-to-date academic profile on LinkedIn, Twitter, Publons, Google Scholar, ORCID, or other professional network sites.
  • Ask your supervisor to officially recommend you as a reviewer to a journal that they are reviewing for.
  • When submitting your own research to a journal, ask the corresponding author of your manuscript to leave a note for the journal editor on your availability to review in your field for that journal.
  • After reviewing a manuscript, you can add your reviewing efforts to your Publons account. Publons Academy motivates to make a public “Publons” research profile and they notify journals when you indicate an interest in reviewing for them.

Now that editors know what research you do and what experience you have, it is time to approach them. You can sign up for journals via Publons as mentioned above, or you can directly email an editor in your research field at the journal of your interest. Recently, several online reviewer databases, including those developed by Dr. Steven Burgess, and Dr. Michael Johnson, have been generated where you can register your interest. In addition, new initiatives such as the reviewer database application developed by Shyam Saladi, or the ECR reviewers pool at eLife are on the rise, so do not dismiss scouting the internet and social media to find new options that may appear.

We hope that the tools and good reasons to become part of the peer review process inspire you and give you more confidence to get involved in peer review, and contribute to scientific progress beyond just performing experiments. Let us end with Mr. Walt Disney’s advice: “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing”.

Written by Ewoud Compeer (@ewoudcompeer), Patricia Resa-Infante, Alexander van Vliet (@Alex_van_Vliet), Renuka Kudva (@biologigal3), Asmaa Elkenawi (@asmaakenawy), Nele Haelterman (@HaeltermanNele), eLife Community Ambassadors; and Sarvenaz Sarabipour (@SSarabipour) & Lotte de Winde (@lotte_dewinde), Early Career Advisors to eLife.

Cover Image by Tumisu from Pixabay


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