Peer Review, Not Poor Review

First time on the giving end of the peer review process? Fret not, graduate student, here are some tips to get you started.

AsianScientist (Apr. 13, 2018) – It starts off as an innocuous chat with your PhD supervisor—just some questions about the progress of your experiments and whether there are enough reagents to keep those experiments going. Then suddenly, with a flourish, your supervisor produces a manuscript from nowhere.

“Read this, it’s interesting work!”

Your eyes scan the title of the manuscript and you see a few familiar keywords. It looks like something your lab might have produced (if it had more funding). You seek out a DOI on the publication but don’t find it.

“This hasn’t been published yet. I’ve been asked to be a reviewer,” your supervisor quips, as if the request from the journal was a medal of honor. “How about you look though it too and let me know your thoughts?”

And with that, you’re ushered out of the room as your supervisor needs to reply to an urgent email. Congratulations, graduate student. You’ve just landed your first stint as reviewer #3.

If this is the first time you’re handling a review, you might be thinking, “How am I qualified to judge someone else’s work?” On the other hand, if you’ve faced rejection by peer reviewers before, you might be thinking, “Finally! My turn to do the judging!”

But putting those doubts or vindictive sentiments aside, what are some ways you can be a good peer reviewer?

Be in the know

Typically, your supervisor is approached by a journal to review a manuscript because your lab has built up some degree of expertise in a particular field. This means that you, even as a graduate student, should at least have sufficient background knowledge to gain a rudimentary understanding of the basic ideas and concepts being raised by the authors of the manuscript.

However, acknowledging that you are but a very early career scientist, you may find yourself having to level up a little to give meaningful critique. Taking the peer review process as a learning experience, you ought to look up terms and techniques that appear foreign to you, or even read a few other published papers to get a better sense of the current state of knowledge. This will help you better assess how the manuscript adds to or challenges the status quo.

Expose secret recipes

Unless the manuscript is about a new research technique, the methods section tends to be the most procedural and least exciting part of the paper. Nonetheless, it deserves your attention as a reviewer. The reproducibility of a scientific finding hinges on the methods used to uncover it, hence, your job as a reviewer is to check that the reagents and conditions used in the experiments are stated clearly.

Point out to the authors any areas that need more elaboration, and if you find a protocol that deviates from what is conventionally accepted, be sure to question it. Sometimes, authors may cite their own group’s published paper in their methods section. This is when you should follow the paper trail and seek out the original methodology, just to be sure it is still relevant.

Ask for proof

Arguably, the ‘meat’ of a manuscript lies in its results section, and this is where the burden of proof is on the authors to provide sufficient evidence to support their hypotheses. You, as a reviewer, have to make up your mind whether you are convinced of the findings.

If the authors of the manuscript rely heavily on RNA data to substantiate a phenotype, would you feel more confident about the results if they performed a Western blot to show changes at the protein level as well? Did the authors verify that their site-directed mutagenesis indeed occurred? Were the appropriate controls used in each experiment? These are questions that you may want to consider when deciding if a manuscript is ready for publication.

Play fair

Finding weaknesses in a manuscript so that the authors can strengthen their study—this is the desired outcome of the peer review process. However, some reviewers can be hurtful rather than helpful, attacking or completely dismissing the findings without reasonable explanation. Other reviewers may demand the world of the manuscript’s authors, recommending experiments that extend far beyond the intended scope of the study.

If you haven’t been on the receiving end of such treatment, you should count yourself lucky. If you have, resist the temptation of passing on the pain. Having said this, being a fair reviewer is not about lowering expectations or giving fellow scientists an easy pass to publish. Rather, a fair review is about looking objectively at the claims being made by the authors of a manuscript and examining whether sufficient evidence is provided to support those claims.

Find connections

No scientific discovery exists in isolation, and the discussion section of a manuscript is usually devoted to emphasizing the connections between studies. As a reviewer, you should look out for whether the authors of a manuscript adequately address how their findings fit into the larger context of their field of research.

Do the authors cite other studies (not their own publications) that corroborate their findings? Also, do they acknowledge opposing views in the discussion? The latter point matters because it demonstrates an awareness of alternative perspectives. In trying to reconcile opposing discoveries, new avenues of inquiry may emerge, forming the foundation of future investigation.

Love it or hate it, the peer review process is part and parcel of the journey in science. For first-time reviewers (I’m looking at you, graduate student), I hope you now have an idea of how to go about being a gatekeeper to the hallowed halls of DOI-land.

This article is from a monthly column called Hacking a PhD. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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