Early career researchers enjoy taking a seat at the peer review table

The Source
By: Lucy Frisch, Wed May 19 2021
Lucy Frisch

Author: Lucy Frisch

Nature Communications holds an Early Career Researcher (ECR) peer review program, aiming to provide an opportunity of formal training in peer review. The ECR peer review program was piloted last year as part of the commitment of Nature Communications to support ECRs and make peer review more inclusive, in partnership with the United Kingdom based charitable organisation Sense about Science. The ECRs who participated last year found the program helpful, providing them with a toolkit to constructively peer review.

This year, we are continuing this collaboration, and Nature Communications is increasing its efforts to be able to offer as many ECRs as we can the opportunity to participate in the peer review program, with a focus on reaching out to those who have more limited opportunities to interact with peer-review journals and professional editors. Like last year, Sense about Science will kick off the initiative by hosting a ‘Quality and peer review online workshop’ on the 18th of June; applications to this workshop are now open and will close on the 24th May. 

In parallel, Nature Communications is recruiting ECRs for a free peer review program which will be divided in two parts: 

  • An introductory webinar for approximately 250 ECRs, explaining the value of the review process, and providing guidance on how it’s done and how to get involved. 
  • Approximately 50 ECRs will continue working one-on-one with a professional editor. The supervising editor will provide each ECR with the opportunity to review a manuscript in their research area and give them feedback on their reviewer report, highlighting what makes peer review constructive and how to write an insightful reviewer’s report.

Interested ECRs can apply to this year edition of the ECR peer review program  until 14th June.  

To whet your appetite,  we have asked Bernie Simone Owusu-Yaw (University of Edinburgh), Alissa Hummer (University of Oxford) and Gareth Moore (University of Manchester) to share their experience with us.

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Please tell us about yourselves.

Bernie Simone Owusu-Yaw

Bernie Simone Owusu-Yaw: I am currently in my final year of studying for a PhD in Neuroscience at University College of London. The aim of my research is to develop transgenic animal models of inherited prion diseases. These models will then be used to investigate the molecular mechanisms of these diseases.

Alissa Hummer
Alissa Hummer: I am a PhD student in Professor Charlotte Deane’s group at the University of Oxford, where I am developing machine learning methods for therapeutic antibody design. Prior to my PhD, I completed my MSci in Biochemistry (University of Oxford) and an MPhil in Biological Science (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Cambridge). In my MPhil, I applied an integrative computational approach to investigate selectivity determinants governing the interaction between G protein-coupled receptors, the largest class of drug targets, and their binding partners. I am broadly interested in combining a molecular understanding of biology with computational techniques to improve therapeutics.

Gareth Moore: I am a second year PhD Student at the University of

Gareth Moore
Manchester, under the supervision of Professors Hilary Ashe and Clair Baldock. My research focuses on the extracellular regulation of Bone Morphogenetic Protein signalling by making use of structural and biophysical techniques as well as the model organism Drosophila. I am also a member of the Voice of Young Science network of early career researchers who share a commitment to take an active role in public debates about science and evidence.

What barriers do you face as an early career researcher (ECR) when trying to get involved in peer review?

BSO-Y: As an ECR I think the two main barriers to getting involved in the peer review process is lack of visibility and experience. Without any published manuscripts it is very difficult for editors to discover you. Also, as an ECR with less experience in the field you may only be able to comment on parts of the research that are familiar to you.

AH: I believe there are significant benefits to involving ECRs in peer review – both for the ECRs themselves, and for the wider research community. However, many ECRs do not know how to get involved with peer review, or even that they can. Additionally, it is challenging as an ECR to have the confidence to critically evaluate a submitted manuscript and suggest revisions. These barriers are likely best overcome by support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as programs, such as the Nature Communications peer review mentoring program, that offer workshops and mentorship.

GM: I think the main barrier I faced was one that a lot of ECRs share; a sense of imposter syndrome and a lack of confidence that they can contribute. I assumed that I didn’t know “enough” to begin reviewing someone else’s work. While I had a rough understanding of the process, I was also unsure how the process worked in practise, who is responsible for what, the expectations and on both the author and reviewer, and most of all what to expect from it. Most people’s first experience of peer review probably comes from the author’s perspective, so it was unique to get my first experience from the other side, as a reviewer.

Last year, you participated to the ECRs peer review mentoring program at Nature Communications. Was this experience helpful to you? What have you learnt and enjoyed the most? 

BSO-Y: Last year I participated in the ECRs peer review mentoring program at Nature communications and it was a fantastic opportunity for me to engage with the peer review process for the first time. I had to write a peer review report for a manuscript in my field of research and I received very detailed feedback from my editor that I found very useful. The peer review webinar was also really helpful in providing some practical suggestions for getting involved in peer review as an ECR, for example co-reviewing with your supervisor.

AH: Participating in the Nature Communications peer review mentoring program was a tremendous experience, due to the holistic nature of the program. From the webinars, I learned about the content and style of a peer review report, as well as the role of reviewers and editors. I then had the opportunity to put this knowledge into practice through the mentored manuscript review, which gave me hands-on exposure to the manuscript submission and review process.

I greatly enjoyed engaging with the manuscripts I reviewed, which strengthened my understanding of how to conduct high-quality research and write well-supported arguments. This experience was particularly helpful due to the excellent support and advice I received from my mentor, a professional editor at Nature Communications. One of the most valuable takeaways from this program for me was the confidence I have gained to seek out and participate in further peer review.

GM: The workshop was great for explaining the process in more detail and answering a lot of the basic questions I had. The panel covered the perspectives from all sides of the review process which helped me better understand the differing responsibilities and expectations. The mentorship programme especially helped build my confidence. It showed me that you don’t need to know everything to be able to contribute something. There were gaps in my knowledge, and I couldn’t comment on all aspects of the manuscript, but I managed to engage with it more than I expected. The editor who mentored me was fantastic. She was very supportive, encouraging and totally non-judgemental which helped me get the most out of the opportunity as I wasn’t afraid to ask questions or make comments. 

For me, the best part was seeing the other reviewers’ comments once they were all submitted. Seeing that they thought about similar things and had similar comments to me was probably the biggest boost to my confidence and was certainly validating. I was also very lucky that the editor who mentored me was generous with her time. In addition to the review process, we discussed the wider world of peer review and her thoughts on some of the topics and discussions we had in the workshop. I really enjoyed chatting about our field of biology and which conferences were the most fun to go to!

Would you recommend this program to another ECR and why?

BSO-Y: I would definitely recommend this program to another ECR as it provides a platform for actively engaging in the peer review process. This program also provides tips and guidance on how to actually write the review and develop your skills as a reviewer. 

AH: I would whole-heartedly recommend this program to any ECR interested in peer review. It is a unique opportunity to learn about peer review, independently review a manuscript and participate in all stages of the peer review process, including communications with the editor. The personalized feedback on the review reports from a mentor results in a fantastic, tailored learning experience.

GM:  I would highly recommend the programme to any ECR at any stage of their career. It’s a brilliant way to not only better understand the process of peer review, but also get your first experience of engaging with it. Your first experience is always going to be a bit scary, but this is a really supportive way to take that first step! 

Any other thoughts? 

AH: I hope to continue to see greater involvement of ECRs in peer review in the coming years! ECRs will one day become the leaders of their fields and, as such, the scientific community benefits greatly from their training in evaluating research. Furthermore, maintaining the integrity of scientific research is important to every member of the community and therefore researchers from all career stages should be involved in the process.

GM: The workshop gave me a new perspective on the role of peer review in society; not just as a mechanism to explain the science, but more as a stamp of approval for people who want to look for the evidence themselves but are not best placed to judge what ‘good’ science is. As a member of the Voice of Young Science Network I want to empower the public to engage with the evidence base and feel confident to question it. With the increased exposure of pre-prints, especially in the last year, peer review can function as an important seal of approval to make science accessible to the widest possible audience. 

Apply now to attend the Sense about Science ‘Quality and peer review online workshop’ (Applications close Monday, May 24th).

Stay tuned for next week's blog detailing the opportunity for 50 ECRs to work one-one-one with a professional editor. Applications are now open for this opportunity as well.

Lucy Frisch

Author: Lucy Frisch

Lucy Frisch is a Senior Marketing Manager leading the Content Marketing Programmes team, based in the New York office. She has a passion for storytelling and works to humanize the research published across Springer Nature with a focus on the researcher experience.