Over the last couple of months the question of how to write a peer review came up quite a few times, and a couple of my colleagues even asked me directly to help them prepare for their first peer reviews. Preparing solid, critical peer review is an essential component of being a good citizen in the scientific community. I generally do about two for every paper I submit. I thought it might be helpful to provide a brief overview of how I personally prepare a peer review, primarily for marine science and conservation journals geared towards population genetic studies. I’d like to think that this advice is broadly applicable to any scientific peer review.
Step 1. Read the paper. It might seem silly to start with this but a lot of people dive into their peer reviews before they’ve even read the submitted paper in its entirety. You start thinking about how you’ll review it as soon as you get a request from the editor with the title and authors. When you get a paper to review, you immediately start reading it with a critical eye. Think about when you read a paper for pleasure or because you are interested in the content. You’re generally not looking for the fine details or nitpicking word choice, you’re looking for the ideas in the paper. You’re trying to understand what the paper is about and you’re trying to understand what the authors concluded with paper. So before you even begin with your peer review just read the paper as if it were any of a dozen other scientific papers that slide across your desk every week..
Step 2. Write down what you think the paper is about. Do this in broad terms, not so much focused on the methodology but rather the ideas behind the methodology, the motivation for the study, the questions the authors want to answer. Use this as a framework to hang the rest of your review on because you’re not just looking for technical precision but to make sure that the study itself is relevant to the broader themes of the paper. Read More
When I was an undergraduate I walked into the coffee area of our zoology building and was informed that “some of the most important papers on animal behavior were written here”. It was a somewhat ugly coffee area in an ugly concrete building, with vinyl covered plywood tables and bright orange upholstered bucket chairs that looked like they had escaped from Austin Power’s 1960s love pad. The coffee wasn’t even good, in fact the zoologists were highly envious of the botany department who had a tea trolley with excellent tea and chocolate covered cookies, but I digress… The coffee area was the place to be as that was where everyone in the department congregated, talked about what they were reading or working on, and most importantly, brain-stormed ideas. Sure there was a certain amount of procrastination going on, with faculty avoiding having to go back to grading, hiding from sheets of data that had to be entered onto excel spread sheets, or balking at yet another hundred samples to analyze back in the labs. But the collegiality that there was in that coffee area: with undergrads chatting to the “silverbacks” of the zoology faculty, sharing their innovative ideas, and getting mentoring advice in return; or scientists from different disciplines advising on different or new techniques to colleagues that had encountered a brick wall in their research progress; was quite frankly more valuable than many lectures, and worth the price of a disgusting cup of instant coffee. Our department was not alone. At the famous big science facility CERN, home of the large hadron collider, there are whiteboards in the lunchrooms because when the scientists there get together they can’t but help brainstorm ideas, and this is encouraged as some of these lunch time collaborations have yielded important scientific fruit.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that conferences are a necessity for the growth of an academic. They give you a chance to share your ideas with other academics to receive support, or possibly criticism, so that you can strengthen and refine your analysis and your interpretation of your data. They are important events to find out the methods and results of peers in your field, information that could be incorporated into your own studies. Informal places where you can get advice, share ideas and develop research and writing partnerships. Rare is the conference where I don’t come home with a note book full of contacts to email, studies to cite and methods to try out. You can travel around the world to find a venue to discuss and debate with your peers. But isn’t it ironic that there are often few of such places within a university?
In response to unprofessional behavior by another scientist, a marine science colleague recently stated that they were so used to bad behavior in their area of research that they just accepted it as normal, and that they basically had “Stockholm syndrome”. Sadly this all too common, that unprofessional behavior in some fields and areas is so common (whether it be academic bullying and hazing, plagiarizing and stealing ideas and data, or sexism and harassment see The Dark Side of Academia) that it becomes the accepted norm. This is particularly prevalent in fields that are small and insular.
Stockholm, despite its associated syndrome, is really quite lovely
Any scientist who is trying to publish relies upon the generosity of other scientists to peer-review their work. As any scientist will tell you, this has pros and cons – constructive advice can greatly improve a manuscript and fix flaws, but on the cons side every scientist has stories about the infamous “reviewer #3” who makes every scientist’s life hell at some time or other. As you start to build a name for yourself, you’ll be asked to review manuscripts, and you should! Reviewing manuscripts is an essential task for any academic and is an integral part of academic life – it is basically an obligation. But there is generally no class on “how to review manuscripts” despite it being a critical part of an academic’s job, and the reviewer has a huge responsibility: your review could potentially make, or seriously hamper, someone’s career. Moreover, doing a poor job reviewing could let bad, unscientific research get published, or even prevent important research getting accepted. To help navigate the minefield of reviewing, here are some tips and suggestions for the novice reviewer…
As a fan of nautical writers CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian* I do like reading the rollocking adventures of the intrepid Captains of His Majesty’s Navy avasting their mainsails and hoisting their topgallants against the scourge of Emperor Napoleon’s forces. In these books I discovered a new nautical term, a “Yellow Admiral”.
When naval captains of the 18th/19th Century achieved seniority they were promoted to the ranks of admiral. There was no promotion on merit, it was simply a case of surviving until a position opened up. There were three ranks of Admiral (rear Admiral, Vice Admiral and Full Admiral) for each of the main naval forced: the Red, White and Blue squadrons, which were patrolling key strategic areas of the world’s oceans. However, there were some captains that you really did not want to be in charge of a single ship, let alone a naval battle group. These individuals were dubbed “Yellow Admirals” and were given administrative positions on land. As a result, a lot of naval logistics in the Napoleonic wars was mired by incompetence, ego-driven power plays, and financial irregularities. We have something similar in academia: instead we don’t call them Yellow Admirals, we call them Associate Deans.