Peer Review Week: Thoughts from a researcher

It is peer review week, a week in which we celebrate the review process and acknowledge the work of reviewers, and celebrate the review process that is the beating heart of science communication. There are many arguments why reviewing is necessary to do, but can it also benefit you as a reviewer? And if you review, what are your responsibilities? Below I give my vision on these aspects.


Reviewing keeps you informed

I have reviewed a good share of papers during my still-young career. I still do, although since I started my lectureship, I find myself so caught up in grant writing, supervision tasks and administrative tasks that I seem to have less time for reviewing. Yet, I still review two to three papers for every paper that I publish myself, to keep a balance between receiving good input on my submissions and generating input on the work of my peers. While I am struggling to find time to review, I find it hard to say no, especially if I know the editors or the paper is on a subject I like. I enjoy reviewing, and it is certainly a good experience to review. I know editors are struggling to get (good) reviewers. But if you want to get your work published in peer-reviewed journals, you should return the favour. If you are someone who often declines invitations, but also struggles to read the literature, see reviewing as an opportunity to do both.


Getting acknowledged for your review work

Reviewing takes time, especially if you want to do a good job. A combination of time pressure and the absence of recognition for review work may make people turn down review invitations. Reviewing – apart from staying informed – can, however, be beneficial to reviewers. One good example is Publons, a platform that registers your reviewing activity. Some journals will even automatically add your reviewing work to Publons (of course, with your consent). As part of peer review week, Publons is honouring the best achieving referees with the Publons Peer Review Awards; a good motivation to excel. Further, most journals publish a list of a list of the previous year’s reviewers, and some reward their reviewers with a small token of appreciation, like a desktop calendar, a coffee mug, or a months’ worth of free access to the journals of a certain publisher.


Transparency in the review process

Peer review is a critically important part of the scientific process. Transparency is crucial therein. The reviewing process should safeguard equality, so. everyone has a similar chance to get published, irrespective of gender, age, or career stage. Unfortunately it seems that this is not always the case. Sadly, science still suffers from a gender bias. I have long thought that time – i.e. a replacement of the ‘old-boys-network’ by a younger and more open generation – would solve this problem, but I seem to be wrong. Active strategies to solve this problem appear inevitable, and double-blind review –where the identity of authors and reviewers are not revealed during the review stage– might solve the problem of the imbalance in female/male solo and last authorships (see f.e. Budden et al. 2008 Trends Ecol Evol 23:4-6). This could of course hold for any minority, and double-blind review may for instance increase the chance of early career researchers to get published (in high impact journals).

Another way of increasing transparency in the review process might be to have fully open reviews. Some journals already publish the review report along with the final paper. The reviewing process can also be open; authors’ and referees’ identities are disclosed. Such a model could reduce unfounded and sometimes outrageous statements (see further below). This definitely enhances transparency, but brings along its own problems. One example might be that younger researchers could be hesitant in their comments when they review papers of more established peers, afraid it will backfire on them.


With reviewing comes responsibility

There are a few responsibilities that come with reviewing. Most important is being ethical. Researchers use the reviewing process to get their own work cited by suggesting references. It is not illegal to do so (yet!), but neither does it follow ethical standards that we as a scientific community should adhere to. By reviewing you have a role in helping the editor to decide if the research was performed well and if the results should be published in the particular journal.

It seems evident, but always raise potential conflict of interests with the authors of the paper. Conflict of interests can be dual: competitive or collaborative. If you have a strong competitive conflict of interests –based on scientific disagreement– reviewing a paper (and most likely suggest rejection) is not the way to take up the gloves. If you have collaborated with (some of) the authors, it does not necessarily make you unsuitable as a reviewer, but it is important to report your relationship with the authors to the editorial team.

Reviewers report should, in my opinion, be constructive; and they certainly not always are. I have encountered devastating referee comments myself. I had submitted an (invited) paper for a journal on a topic in which I have a track record. One of the referees did not agree with the message of my review paper and went as far as stating that the author (me) “has clearly no clue what he is talking about”. The paper was rejected. You can guess how awful that made me feel. I felt like a failure and it was a very demotivating experience. The editors of the journal acknowledged the rudeness of the referee’s statement, but said they cannot be accounted for the wording of the referees. Of course, that is true, but I think that editors should encourage referees to refrain from disrespectful comments that do not add to the scientific discussion.

So perhaps I can end this post by urge everyone to be civilized in our review comments; our role is to focus on the content, not on commenting on the style, nor the ability of the researchers in question. And if you are unsure of what type of comments might be taken up as an insult, just have a look at the twitter feed of @YourPaperSucks.


If you would like to do some further reading on publication ethics related subjects, the editors of Functional Ecology and their colleagues have published some interesting analyses on the journal:

– Fox, Charles W., Burns, C. Sean, Muncy, Anna D. &Meyer, Jennifer A. Author-suggested reviewers: gender differences and influences on the peer review process at an ecology journal.

– Fox, Charles W., Burns, C. Sean. Muncy, Anna D., Meyer, Jennifer A.
Gender differences in patterns of authorship do not affect peer review outcomes at an ecology journal

– Fox, Charles W., Burns, C. Sean & Meyer, Jennifer A. Editor and reviewer gender influence the peer review process but not peer review outcomes at an ecology journal.


Bjorn Robroek is the blog editor for Functional Ecologists.bjorn




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