Been asked to perform peer review for a journal? Turn it into a career opportunity! Let’s find out why doing peer reviews is great for your career.
Imagine you’ve received an invitation to review a paper from a leading journal. Or put another way, imagine that your boss has asked you to comment on a document she put together.
One of the key takeaways about the peer review process is that these two scenarios are the same in terms of your career development.
Sure, peer review is the cornerstone of academic publishing: the process by which we ensure quality in journals, peer reviewed journals. As a researcher, however, the most important consideration for you is your career. What will be best for you?
Learning to comment critically on the work of others in a positive and constructive way is a key transferrable skill for researchers.
Here are THREE issues to consider before agreeing to take on a peer review task for a journal:
- Are you free from any conflicts of interest?
- Is this your field?
- Do you have time?
Before you agree to take on a peer review task for a journal, your answer to these three questions should be ‘yes’, ‘yes’, and ‘yes’. Let’s look at each question and see why!
1. Are you free from any conflicts of interest?
You will most likely have been invited to perform peer review by a journal editor based on:
- their own knowledge about workers in the field,
- a recommendation in the author’s cover letter
- an online search tool (such as those integrated into ScholarOne and EditorialManager, for example).
What this means in practice is if there are any possible conflicts of interest, you must declare them to the editor before starting work on the review.
A conflict of interest could be anything really, but most importantly: Have you worked closely with any of the authors on the paper you are being asked to review recently? Did you supervise one of them, for example, or oversee a PhD or Masters thesis? Have you closely collaborated or are you currently working together, on another project or grant application, for example?
It’s always a good idea if in doubt, to talk to the editor. Fire off an email and ask, “I was working recently with Author A on Project B: Do you think that this represents a conflict?”. It’s part of an editor’s job to help you out with these kinds of issues.
Sometimes, editors think close working relationships are potentially good things for effective peer review. I remember reviewing a paper once for Nature that was written by three of my friends, one of them a close collaborator. I flagged these issues to the editor who wrote back to say “Sure: This is good. We still want to hear your view on this paper”. It’s best to ask.
Also, it’s much better in such situations to remain anonymous. You’ll often have that option as a reviewer: To remain anonymous or disclose your identity.
Being open and communicating with editors in a straightforward way is a good career development skill. Writing those honest emails to ask about situations with respect to authors on a paper: Should you be doing a peer review, or not?
2. Is this your field?
As peer reviews are often solicited via online search systems, as we’ve discussed, there’s always the chance you’ll be asked to work on a paper that is outside your research comfort zone. Don’t take it on if you don’t feel good about the area of research, or you don’t feel competent to do a good job. However, having said this, being a PhD or early career researcher is good: This means that you are much closer to a research area than perhaps someone at a later career stage!
Don’t succumb to the dreaded Imposter Syndrome (feelings of not being good enough or deserving the position you hold): You are an expert in your field, or you would not be in the position you are in, doing a PhD! Confidence is important as well if you are going to a good job in review.
3. Do you really have the time?
Peer review takes a lot of time to do properly. Editors tend not to be very happy when they receive short or cursory reviews of papers: “Looks good to me!”, or “Great paper: No comments”. These are a waste of everyone’s time.
Instead, it’s much better to turn down the opportunity to perform review if you are not going to be able to do a good job, taking the time required. Lots of peer reviewers take on tasks for journals knowing well that they will not be able to devote the time, and this is reflected in the quality of their review.
Gaining a reputation at a leading journal as someone who does a good job in peer review can be a huge boost to your career. Editors will view you in a favorable light. You’ll get to know them on a more personal level as you exchange emails about articles. This is one way in which doing a good job at peer review can indeed be a key career skill.
Peer review is a transferrable career skill
It will come as no surprise to most researchers reading this blog that, in fact, peer reviewers very often approach this task with a negative mindset.
It’s human nature: People tend to think “How can I find ways to torpedo this paper, to stop it from being published”. I’m sure you’ve had these feelings when working as a peer reviewer: Let’s look for issues with this work rather than find ways to help the authors improve their work and get it up to standard for publication.
This brings us back to our comparison with “the world of work”: Imagine your boss gives you a document to comment on. Doing a good job, providing positive and constructive comments that lead to improvements could help you in your career advancement.
Being positive and constructive in peer review is very important and is a key transferrable skill because:
- Editors and authors will appreciate your work to make papers better and help them get accepted
- You’ll end the experience in a positive, rather than negative, mindset which is good for health and development.
Our team at Edanz are all expert researchers with many years of experience helping authors to improve their work for publication in leading journals.
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Want to know how to fix common problems with peer review? Come and join our FREE webinar, “Solving Peer Review Problems” on this Friday May 28 2021 at 0900 BST / 1700 JST.
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