Random thoughts on peer-review

The New-York Times published an article about the weaknesses of the scientific peer-review process. The article also provides a few ideas for improvements. I will not discuss this article, but please read it if you are unfamiliar with the current peer-review “crisis”.

Here are a few random thoughts i had about peer-review, which I do not remember reading about in articles or posts.

The NYT article refers to “formal training” that is lacking. That is somewhat true. As a grad student and postdoc I always got handed papers that my PI was given for review. However, we not always got a chance to discuss the paper after I returned my conclusions to the PI. Also, the editors probably didn’t even know that I reviewed the paper, and so I didn’t even get any credit, recognition, reputation – nothing.

On other fronts, my current lab maintains regular  journal club meetings designed exactly for this purpose of training critical reading of papers. I teach a seminar class to grad students that is, again, designed to train for critical reading of a paper. But these are mostly post-publication (sometimes pre-prints) so there are no true consequences to our criticism (i.e. not one is going to modify/reject a paper).

As a postdoc, I got invited personally (not through my PIs) to peer-review  papers. I was invited four times; three times by editors who knew me personally (one of them my previous PI). Only one editor invited me by my reputation. I think I did a pretty good job and I would gladly review more papers if invited.

I am also an associate editor at Bio-protocol. Many of our editors are postdoc. So are most of our reviewers. And they do tremendous work. I am proud that our protocols are easy to follow, maintain high quality of writing and clarity (and, of course, scientific rigor and interest).

Authors typically recommend other PIs for peer-review. Editors also typically invite PIs. Why not expand the circle of reviewers to postdocs & stuff scientists? Invite them directly.  They are more likely to accept (since it boosts their academic reputation and recognition), they will do a comparable job to PIs, and it will unburden the PIs.

It will also encourage authors (both junior authors and the PIs) to get acquainted with the names of postdocs, research associates & stuff scientists from other labs in the field, not just with the PI.


What do to in practice:

  1. If you are a PI and get invited to review a paper, ask your postdoc if s/he is interested. If yes, reject the editor’s invitation and recommend the postdoc to the editor. Convince the editor, if needed, that this is good for all parties.  Provide your postdoc with advice.
  2. If you are a postdoc, research associate and other non-faculty scientists and want to review – tell your PI (and/or other PIs in your department/field). Go and talk with editors at conferences. Interact with editors in social media. Gather reputation as expert by speaking at conferences, writing review papers etc…
  3. Grad & undergrad students: ask your PI to give you papers to practice peer-review; participate in journal clubs or seminar courses that require critical reading of articles.

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