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Getting involved in peer review

Posted by , on 19 May 2020

In pre-COVID19 times, back when conferences happened largely in person, early-career researchers (ECRs) often asked me how they could get more direct invitations to be a reviewer. Peer review is a crucial part of the publishing ecosystem and therefore it’s not uncommon for group leaders to invite members of their lab to review articles with them as part of their academic training. However, direct invitations to review mark a point at which trainees begin feel established in the field (along with moves to start their own group) and can make a useful contribution to a CV. During the current disruption, some reviewers might be feeling overburdened, and editors might be looking to expand their pool of reviewers. Here, I’ve provided a short guide with tips on how ECRs can make themselves known to editors with the hope of receiving direct invitations to be a reviewer. This post does not prescribe what makes a “good” reviewer, nor does it provide training on how to write a peer review report, but you can read advice from Elsevier’s Reviewer Hub or participate in training programmes from Publons Academy, Society for Neuroscience and Genetics Society of America.

So, to stand a chance at being invited to review a manuscript, editors need to know just two things: (1) who you are and (2) your scientific expertise. Editors can’t invite reviewers they don’t know exist or can’t find! Each editor will have a different strategy for finding potential reviewers, and these approaches might vary between professional vs. academic editors. Ideally, an editor aims for three reviewers with complementary expertise to cover the major topics in the manuscript. At Development (and presumably other journals), we also consider aspects of diversity, including career stage, geographical location and gender – see this Editorial by James Briscoe and Katherine Brown. But where do editors look for inspiration?

Author suggested reviewers
Most manuscript submission systems allow authors to suggest (or exclude) particular researchers for reviewing their manuscript. Editors will check that these suggestions are sensible, and that the suggested reviewers have the right expertise. It’s also important that there is no conflict of interest between parties, which could be negative (e.g. a direct competitor) or positive (e.g. a previous member of the lab or a recent collaborator). Note that editors are unlikely to only use reviewers suggested by the author, and it is up to the editor who they decide to invite to review a manuscript, although we do respect exclusions.

Reference list
Editors might also look through the references cited in the manuscript to see whether it heavily features the work of another group or – if they know the field well – whether certain relevant publications are missing. Authors of these publications might be invited to review the manuscript.

Journal databases
Most journals have databases containing researchers, expertise terms and records of previous reviews. These records might detail the number of reviewers a researcher has accepted (or declined), the length of time they took to complete their report, previous reports and, in some cases, a ranking system where the editor can comment on the quality of the report.

Talks, seminars, conferences and meetings
For editors, talks and conferences are a great way to meet new researchers. They also provide a broader view of the field as a whole, highlighting areas of debate, uncertainty or controversy, which is useful to know when selecting balanced reviewers.

Editors might be inspired by other articles they’ve handled recently and look to the authors of those articles to review new work. In addition, they might get ideas from publications in other journals within the field or through keyword searches of publication databases such as PubMed.

Google search
A Google search using key terms can be a useful way to widen a reviewer pool. Such key terms might be the subject area, a particular technology, specific gene name etc. Editors will explore group and departmental websites to have a clear understanding of the group’s research focus, background and publications.

Social media
Social media might be another way for editors to meet reviewers, although this may lead to bias towards particularly vocal scientists. I (and others) have also used the Node Network to find reviewers – read more about the Node Network in this announcement.

Expert advice
Usually, if an invited reviewer is unable to review an article, there is the option for them to suggest alternative researchers and it’s really helpful for them to do so! Editors might also seek the advice of their Advisory Editorial Board, either directly or for reviewer suggestions.

Editor expertise
Particularly experienced editors will have a thorough understanding of the community in their field and will be able to choose reviewers based on their own knowledge of everything above.

So, with these things in mind, here are three tips for how you can expand your own profile:

1. Get involved: Participate, publish, present and be pro-active

Participate in co-reviewing manuscripts with mentor or group leader and ask them to provide your name to the journal to acknowledge your contribution (see “get credit”’ below). If you’ve left the lab and your former mentor or group leader is unable to review a manuscript, you can ask that they suggest that the editor contact you in their place. Some publishers also have the option to “volunteer” to review, such as Elsevier’s “VolunPeer” initiative and some individual journals – such as eLife, STAR protocols, Stem Cell Research and PeerJ journals – have opportunities to sign up.

Your publication record is the primary way you can demonstrate your research interests and expertise. Although this obviously isn’t the main incentive for publishing, each publication has the added benefit of exposing your name to editors and it might get you inside a journal database.

Try to present your research at conferences, either through a talk or a poster, so that editors become familiar with you and your work. You can also use social media to disseminate your research to a wider audience or talk about subjects that interest you.

You can also be pro-active by approaching editors at meetings and conferences to talk about your work and your interests – when doing so make sure that the editors are left with a clear idea of the topics you cover in your research. Along similar lines, you can email journals and editors to ask to be added to their reviewer database – make sure to also include a list of key terms for your expertise and keep this profile up-to-date (see “get up-to-date” below). The Node Network has been set up specifically for developmental and stem cell biologists with the aim of finding speakers and reviewers that would not normally come to mind – add yourself! Other initiates also exist, such as the GoogleDoc mentioned below.

2. Get up-to-date

Ask that your institution or departmental page is kept up-to-date, easy to find and easy to navigate, or include a link to your professional/group website that you can keep on top of it yourself. Make sure that within your page you include a list of your recent publications and keep this updated. Also have a page or paragraph that outlines your research interests as specifically as possible; details of any interdisciplinary research, as well as the model organisms or technologies that your group utilises, are also useful for editors to know.

Keep your profiles on various databases and directories (such as the Node Network, Google Scholar, ORCID and ResearchGate) up-to-date with your current institution, email address and expertise. If old information is in a database, then you might miss out on an invitation; although an editor should check for that your most recent contact information is correct before they get in touch! Again, an accurate departmental website can be crucial for editors to know old email addresses from new ones.

3. Get credit

As mentioned above, if you have participated in peer review with your mentor or group leader, consider asking them to provide you with some credit. At Development, we encourage lab members to contribute as co-reviewers and have a specific part of the report where these lab members are named. The names provided here are still withheld from the authors, but the journal will contact to the co-reviewer and invite them to join the journal’s database.

You can also receive credit through initiatives that track peer review activity, such as Publons and ORCID. Some publishers, such as Elsevier, also have reviewer recognition platforms, which allow editors to acknowledge reviewers that provide particularly useful reports with a “certificate of excellence”.

Finally – and perhaps more controversially – you could consider signing the report if the journal allows you to do so. There are various arguments for and against waiving anonymity, but if the authors felt that your report was particularly constructive they might suggest you to review future manuscripts. In journals where peer review reports are published alongside the article, the recognition might go even further. Ultimately, you should do what make you comfortable and therefore allows you to produce the most constructive report possible.

I’d like to finish by saying thank you to all the researchers that participate in peer review, especially those who have taken the time to review manuscripts for Development. Although the publishing landscape is changing, and there are important discussions to be had around this, peer reviewers continue to be an essential part of moving science forward.

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