Peer reviews can be a game-changer for both the authors and readers of a future publication, affecting the story that the data tell as well as its impact on the field. The first of this two-part series focused on considerations for delegators of peer review. In part two, the attention is turned to the recipients of a delegated peer review.
Part 2: Considerations for the recipient of a delegated peer review
Before agreeing to take part in a manuscript peer review at the request of a senior scientist, an individual should consider that peer reviewing is a learned art, and those who do it well devote a substantial amount of time to the process. Indeed, the process may be more difficult than writing one’s own manuscript since the evolution of the story presented is not second nature, so following the rationale that the authors have presented may be challenging. In contrast to published manuscripts, these unpublished works may be early drafts with rough prose that do not effectively express the author’s ideas.
The following are questions for self-evaluation to determine if an individual will be able to complete the most constructive evaluation possible.
• Is the peer review process a collective effort in collaboration with the invited principal investigator? As noted in Part 1, this arrangement can be a very useful exercise for individuals who want to pursue careers that involve some degree of publishing (academic, clinical, or industrial). As is true for the entire peer review process, a collective evaluation is more constructive than one individual’s perspective / opinion. When possible, a consensus peer-review from a single lab is the most effective, but could require more time to coordinate.
• How much time is allotted versus will be required to complete the review? Life happens. Experiments can fail. But the review process does not stop, and authors and editors are pressed for time. In my experience, peer reviews take longer than expected to achieve a level of criticism that truly benefits all parties involved. And don’t forget to include at least a 1-day break between the initial review write up and its editing and submission to the editor. This forced break allows one to see the manuscript as a whole rather than focusing on otherwise minor blemishes, and allows one to reflect on whether or not the manuscript and its data contribute substantially to the field
• Does the topic of the unpublished manuscript engage an individual’s expertise, either past or present? The degree of overlapping interest that a reviewer has to the topic of the manuscript will invariably make the review process more productive – after all, the assumption by editor and authors is that the peer reviewer will be an expert, not a student completely new to the specific field covered in the manuscript. Conversely, readings from those tangential to the work presented in the manuscript (e.g. those who follow the field closely, but are not “insiders”) are invaluable for providing new perspectives and identifying inconsistencies or assumptions that have become established without empirical evidence.
• Are the majority of methods used in the manuscript familiar? A thorough understanding of how the data in a manuscript were acquired is essential for determining if the authors’ interpretation of the results has considered the nuances of the experimental paradigm. Theoretical and working knowledge of techniques can be very different perspectives; having both is ideal.
A peer review should ultimately help an editor identify strengths and weaknesses in a manuscript, thus informing – not voting on – a decision. If one has any doubt about the relevance of the process, simply look back to the 9th century guide to physicians, Adab aț-Ṭabīb where the concept of the peer review was first documented as a check-and-balance system to protect the sacrosanct oath of physicians. In it, the author recommended that peer review be used judiciously to help a medical counsel decide if a doctor had acted in the best interest of his patient. Thus, performing a peer review today is a rare opportunity that can influence the direction of a field, and is ultimately one path to scientific altruism.
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