Q&A from eLife and OASPA: Early-career researcher involvement and recognition in peer review

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In our second Q&A article to mark Peer Review Week 2016, we asked some early-career researchers about their involvement in peer review and how they feel they are recognised for their work. These responses have been provided by Sonia Sen (SS), a member of eLife’s Early Career Advisory Group and postdoctoral researcher for three years, and an early-career reviewer in the humanities at Ubiquity Press (UP) .

What experience do you have as a reviewer so far?

SS: I have reviewed numerous papers with my PhD mentor, and have reviewed three independently for Current Biology, PLOS Genetics and eLife.

UP: I’ve carried out two peer reviews for open-access journals.

Do you feel that you are recognised for the work you do in peer review? If so, in what ways?

SS: There often isn’t a means by which mentors, who solicit reviews from their early-career colleagues, can make their contribution known. But I believe that when there is such a possibility, especially when journals explicitly ask reviewers whether anybody has assisted in their review, senior scientists do acknowledge the contribution of junior colleagues.

UP: Not really. Recognition itself comes from the fact that you’ve been invited in the first place. We’re all busy and reviewing is not a trivial commitment.

Do you think it is important to be recognised for your work in peer review? If so, why?

UP: Yes, but primarily by institutions providing the time for researchers to do it. I don’t think this needs to happen at the journal level, personally.

SS: While recognition is certainly important, the experience of reviewing papers is much more so. The current system of academics is excellent for creating technical expertise, but falls short in the various other aspects that are critical for a healthy career in academics. Peer review is one of these aspects that is largely ignored in our training, leaving each person to negotiate this territory on their own. This, in addition to the confidential nature of peer review, results in the often unreasonable, unmoderated and occasionally less-than-cordial peer review that we’ve all been at the receiving end of. The review process at eLife, with its post-review discussion, is a great platform to change that culture by calling on early-career researchers to partake in a healthier review process.

The recognition doesn’t hurt! As an early-career researcher, you can (mostly) only be assessed by the papers you publish, and these are naturally limited. However, you can be much more prolific in what is an equally important aspect of science. The eLife model of peer review especially allows early-career researchers to interact scientifically with senior colleagues in their field. This recognition is vital because these senior colleagues will very likely constitute the bodies that assess their grants and job applications.

Do you know of others in your field who offer substantial time and consideration for peer-review work? If so, how?

SS: Most commonly, my peers assist their mentors in reviews. A few mentors are more particular about calling on their early-career colleagues than others and, as a result, some of my peers spend more time doing reviews than others.

Do you think enough is being done to ensure recognition for early-career researchers in peer review? What more, if anything, do you think could be done to improve this?

SS: The involvement of early-career researchers in peer review is an informal one, and goes largely unacknowledged, often because no formal means exist to allow this. It would be great if, in addition to the two-to-three reviewers that journals use in the peer-review process, they also called upon an early-career reviewer. The challenge would be to curate a somewhat vetted college of early-career reviewers, with a bigger challenge then being to encourage more journals to use them. Sites such as Publons can, to some extent, serve the dual purpose of recognition as well as the college; however, early-career scientists first need to break the initial recognition barrier to even begin building a profile on Publons.

UP: Institutions need to provide the time for researchers to peer review. I don’t think this needs to happen at the journal level, personally, though they should lobby for recognition by the researchers’ universities.

Co-reviewing research papers with a junior colleague is quite a popular way of participating in peer review. Do you think early-career researchers receive appropriate credit for co-reviewing?

SS: It was often not possible for early-career researchers to receive recognition (or it was at least not considered possible) and, as a result, they did not. More recently, however, this is changing.

What do you think early-career researchers in general should do to ensure they are recognised as much as possible for their contributions in this area?

SS: I am not sure what we can do apart from the very obvious: letting our mentors know that we would like to do reviews and, if they have papers they want assistance with, to pass them on; let them know that it is possible to mention to the journal that you assisted with the review (I am not sure if Publons will accept an acknowledgement in this form - it would be great if it did); maintain a Publons profile, especially if journals can simultaneously be encouraged to use it as the ‘college’; and, when you get papers to review, be thorough and punctual. That should help in getting more reviews to do!

UP: They should consider adding a line to their CV to indicate for which journals they have peer reviewed. For book peer reviews, publishers should encourage reviewers to turn their review into a book review for publication. In general, monograph peer review allows for more recognition.

What do you hope for next in terms of recognising early-career researchers in peer review? (For example, do you see it really taking off among journals in the next few years?)

UP: I don’t really see it taking off in the coming years. I guess open peer review would allow for greater recognition for early-career researchers, but we’re a long way off from that in the humanities.

SS: I hope that we can formalise the already existing culture of early-career scientists assisting in peer review. This will automatically allow us to use platforms, such as Publons, that provide the space for recognition for our contribution. I hope that other journals start doing this and, based on my experience, I think they might. But more than this, I hope that other journals adopt a peer-review system more like eLife’s, with a discussion between reviewers before sending out one consolidated review. Apart from being great for authors, I think it’s an excellent system to keep a quality check on peer review itself.