Real Life Peer Review: Insight From a Researcher Reviewing for 30+ Years

The Source
By: Penny Freedman, Wed May 6 2020
Penny Freedman

Author: Penny Freedman

Peer review is an important part of the publishing process. Journals would not be able to publish the research that they do without the dedication of peer reviewers. Serving as the checkpoint to academic credibility, reviewers provide crucial feedback for authors and editors that influences the future of a paper’s publication status. With the world facing an unprecedented time of crisis, the work of reviewers is more essential than ever. 

We asked researchers about their experience as peer reviewers. We hope their stories provide a sounding board for others, and offer insight into a process that almost all researchers will take part in during their career. 

Riccardo Antonini is a retired professor that resides in the United Kingdom. He most frequently reviews research in evolutionary biology. After 30 years of reviewing, he reviews, on average, one paper per year. He reviews because he sees science as a collective enterprise.

What do you most enjoy about the review process?

Being able to help colleagues in the collective endeavor.

How has reviewing changed over the years?

Overall my experience has improved throughout the years. No doubt about that. No nostalgia for “the good old days”. The main difference lies, in my view, in the dramatic increase in the speed of the whole process which has brought obvious and less obvious consequences. I have to add that not very many of us were immediately aware of all of them at the time they came into being.

In an obvious way, the elimination of lags, i.e. delays, (and costs) between correspondence between authors and reviewers via ordinary postal services or (expensive) courier dramatically reduced the time between submission and publication. In a less obvious way the elimination of such delays allowed reviewers like me to stay focused on any particular paper without having to “recall” it  after weeks or even months.

Moreover, in the past, due to the delays in the post exchanges, reviewers tried to catch-up (in good faith) by shortening the actual time devoted to the evaluation. Of course, the authors themselves have greatly benefited from the overall increase in speed. This last point is important because, especially if you are a young researcher, time is precious and prompt feedback greatly helps you in deciding, whatever the outcome of the review is, what course to follow in the future of your research.

What do you find most challenging about reviewing papers?

Setting aside my personal views and trying to understand the ultimate goals of the authors as neutrally as possible.

What has been your proudest moment as a reviewer?
Helping some young authors to overcome their lack of confidence and encourage them to share their results even if they are preliminary. 

How do you manage your time between reviewing papers and your career responsibilities/research work?

Since I have recently retired, I spend my time reading as much as I can about the subjects of interest, and do some old projects of mine without time pressure.

What tools, programs, or systems do you use to facilitate the review process? 

I use ORCID. Also file comparison tools of all sorts (text, pdf, data) are really valuable in going though versions of the same papers. I  use Zotero as a general database to help me in verifying sources. On the more technical level I try to replicate as many results as possible and hence I use "R" and other statistical software. Octave and other open source computing software are always of help.

If you use programs such as Publons or ORCID to showcase your review history, how has this contributed to your overall review experience and/or career? 

ORCID helped me massively in many ways. It allows me absolute certainty in identifying researchers (avoiding homonym, misspelling, etc. especially with languages that I do not know). It also provides reliable, unequivocal and fast information about their previous work, which I reference after having at least a first reading. I use background information only to put the work in context, to gain a better understanding, and never to bias my judgment.

What do you wish you could change about the peer review process?

Encourage the machine readability of data and procedures submitted. Encourage formal definitions of procedures alongside verbal descriptions.

Penny Freedman

Author: Penny Freedman

Penny Freedman is a Marketing Manager on the Author Experience & Services team based in the New York office. She works closely on sharing insight and guidance on the benefits and services available to our editors, reviewers, and authors.

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