Excelling as a peer reviewer in academia

9 min read

In academia, as a PhD scholar, you want to focus on developing your credibility in your research niche. One of the many ways to do so is to publish your academic findings at top-tier venues. But, there is another group of people who will be the key decision makers whether or not your manuscript makes it to the final publication stage- the peer reviewers.

Excelling as a peer reviewer in academia can be a complex and rewarding experience. As an early stage researcher, you may not be very familiar with the concept of peer review, its importance in academia, and how you can serve as a peer reviewer. In this article, we will demystify all such aspects surround peer review helping you excel as a peer reviewer in academia.

What is peer review in research?

Peer review is a component of the scientific process in which participants (peers) evaluate each other’s work. It is conducted by experts in the field who review research to assess its quality, relevance, and accuracy.

Publications going through this process are then referred to as peer-reviewed conferences or peer-reviewed journals. It is quite often that a manuscript would likely go through multiple rounds of peer review. Though, if feasible, the reviewers stick around till the final fate of the manuscript has been decided so the authors are given ample chance to resolve all reviewer’s queries.

Why consider peer reviewing?

Peer review is an important part of ensuring the quality of published research. It helps to ensure that only accurate and well-developed research is published and provides a way for the research community to identify areas needing further investigation or revision. Peer review also helps to ensure the integrity and reliability of scholarly work.

Depending on the career stage you are at, you will likely have to start building up your credibility by first publishing at top-tier peer reviewed venues. As you do that, you will slowly start getting invites from such venues to peer-review other manuscripts as an independent peer reviewer.

How to get invited for peer review?

At this point you might be wondering: What is it that you as a research scholar have to do to get a chance to peer review? Here are some aspects that will help you gain traction as an eminent scholar and get invited to peer review:

  • Become an active member of academic networks and research communities.

  • Develop expertise in your chosen field and publish your own work in reputable conferences and journals.

  • If you are longing to get a chance to serve as peer reviewer but have not yet been given a chance, you can try asking your supervisor if they currently have some pending review requests. It might be so that they might have their plate full and might even have some manuscripts related to your niche. After seeking due permissions, they might be able to get some assigned to you.

  • Respond quickly and positively when asked to review. If there are cases wherein you are unable to taken on the request such as owing to conflict of interest or prior commitments, be prompt in responding and mentioning such reasons. Like this, the requesting party would know to look for other reviewers in time. Even better, if you know someone you could refer, seek their permission and if they have the bandwidth for it, try recommending their name instead.

  • Maintain and up to date profile on online databases, such as Publons, which list peer reviewers and help connect them to manuscripts.

  • If you have published at a peer reviewed publication or perhaps submitted your manuscript to one, there is a possibility that the Editorial Board might invite you to peer review some of the other manuscripts.

  • Last but not last, direct outreach might also be something to consider. If you feel the need to, you can reach out to the Editorial Board and mention about your area of expertise and your willingness to serve as a peer reviewer if a suitable manuscript comes up.

What are the best practices for peer review?

A good peer reviewer reads manuscripts critically and thoughtfully. This means thoroughly understanding the research topic and using scholarly sources to evaluate the quality of the work.

  • Do your research. Before you agree to review a manuscript, make sure you understand the research topic and have the appropriate background knowledge to do a thorough review. Be sure to read the literature relevant to the subject matter, including any relevant studies and reviews from other authors.

  • Evaluate scope fit. Peer reviewers should be familiar with the venue’s scope and basic typesetting guidelines to make sure that the manuscript is a good fit. A successful peer reviewer can spot manuscripts that are too broad or narrow in scope.

  • Stay up to date. To be an effective peer reviewer, you should stay knowledgeable about research topics in your field. Staying up to date with the current literature and trends in the field will ensure that you can provide the best feedback.

  • Be open-minded and respectful. As a peer reviewer, it’s important to be open to new ideas and respectful of the authors’ work. You should strive to provide constructive criticism that can help the authors improve their work and should be clear in indicating whether the author’s are required to address your queries immediately or you are giving them room to incorporate them for future works.

  • Follow through. Once you’ve made your evaluation, follow through and make sure the editor has received your feedback. This will show that you’re professional and diligent in your work.

  • Reserve ample time to finalize the review. Before committing to peer review request, check your schedule to ensure you can dedicate enough time to thoroughly review the manuscript. Do not try to sit down for review an hour prior to the proposed deadline. Although, under special circumstances, you might be able to ask for an extension but it is ideal if you submit your review comments within the preset time frame to ensure timely publication for the authors and build a rapport with the Editorial board.

  • Learn from experience. Each peer review is an opportunity to learn and grow as a researcher. After each review, take the time to reflect on the experience and identify areas that you can improve upon in the future.

What are the types of peer review?

Peer reviews can be conducted in one of the following settings:

Single anonymized review

Sometimes also referred to as a single “blind” review, in this case, the authors mention their names and affiliation of the manuscript under review but the reviewer’s identity is kept anonymous.

Double anonymized review

This type of peer review is similar to the single anonymized review, except that both the authors’ and reviewers’ identities are concealed.

Triple anonymized review

In this method, authors remain anonymous to both reviewers and editors whereas reviewers remain anonymous only for the authors.

Open review

In an open review system, both the authors and reviewers are publicly acknowledged. This type of review system may involve discussion between the authors and reviewers, which can be useful for providing more context to the review process.

Notably, each setting comes with its own set of constraints in terms of transparency in the review process and limiting the bias towards authors and/or their affiliations.

Don’t be dreaded “Reviewer No. 2“

If you are new to the publication system, you may or may not be familiar with the stigma surrounding “Reviewer No.2”. In the peer review system, often the manuscript undergoes independent screening by two or more reviewers. In such cases, there is a stereotypically the “Reviewer 2” who is adamant on thrashing the manuscript. If you want some lighthearted humor along these lines, check out the Facebook group called “Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped!“ or “Shit My Reviewers Say”, on Tumblr.

On a serious note, the goal of peer review is to ensure the quality of work. As reviewers, we owe it to ourselves and the authors to be fair and ethical. Start your review process with an open mind and stick to the essential criteria when evaluating a manuscript. Doing so will ensure that your reviews are considered and valued by other reviewers and editors.

Key takeaways

Peer review is beneficial for ensuring the quality of published research. To become a successful peer reviewer, one should strive to stay abreast with the recent advances in their research niche and only accept to peer review manuscripts if they feel confident about the topic.

Peer reviewers should carefully evaluate any conflict of interests and should not be afraid to refer other fitting reviewers. Peer review is a crucial part of the publication process and one of the most important ways you can develop your reputation in the field of academia. By investing in yourself, pursuing opportunities to review, and following best practices when giving feedback, you can further your research profile and contribute to the quality of academic work.