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Peer review: A key ‘transferable skill’ for researchers

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Peer review: A key ‘transferable skill’ for researchers Gareth Dyke, PhD, Reviewer Credits

What’s currently missing from the  peer review training available for researchers? 

Everyone knows that peer review is the cornerstone of academic publishing. We all rely on other experts, our peers, to ‘quality control’ submitted research, to suggest improvements and changes, all before articles are finally – hopefully – published in journals. The higher-profile the journal, the better from a researcher’s perspective, which just makes the peer review process harder and more of a ‘survival story’ for most academics. Indeed, research should not be published in a non-peer reviewed journal and authors should not be ‘suckered’ into placing their work in journals that do not follow standard peer review. It’s a shame that often, at the end of the peer review process for one of their papers, researchers often feel drained, exhausted, and shattered by this arduous process rather than able to celebrate the achievement of having a research article published. We need to change this dynamic!

Publishers place a huge amount of emphasis on finding good, fast, and effective subject-area specialists to peer review research articles for journals. It’s not easy and becoming more and more of an issue across the scholarly publishing ecosystem. Often more than 10 emails need to be sent out by an editor before a single reviewer accepts to ‘take on’ a paper. Publishers think: How can the peer review process be accelerated? How can we encourage researchers to ‘take on’ peer review? And: Once peer review is completed, how can we capture this researcher within our ecosystem so that they use this journal, or one of our other journals, for their next paper and don’t move off to work with one of our competitors? Publishing academic research is a business, after all.

This translates into the kinds of content created by publishers around the peer review process. Training courses, webinars, blogs, helpful downloadables are all geared towards ‘helping’ researchers do better at peer reviewing papers. The onus is on the process – speed and efficiency – from the publisher’s perspective. After all, they need willing, keen, and able researchers to work on improving articles before they are published.

What does doing peer review mean to researchers?

When we talk to researchers about peer review via the ReviewerCredits platform, the feedback we get is very often that doing this work for journals is ‘a necessary evil’. Researchers feel that they are simply ‘expected’ to perform journal peer review as part of their academic service. This is something that is expected: Researcher colleagues feel a strong desire to do a good job, of course, but also frustration that peer review is often not something that they are able to get credit for within their institution. Peer review is very often just not a task one can report on a CV, or to a university or research funding agency. It’s just part of the working week. An inevitable, necessary contribution to academic scholarship. Quality-control of the scholarly record is part of a researcher’s set of responsibilities to the academic community.

Sadly, publishers almost always miss this. A good number of academic researchers, when mined to perform peer review for journals, are early career researchers. Sometimes postdocs or just finished expert PhDs who have a handful of publications and a strong desire to advance and contribute to their field. These researchers are very often not provided with any training in peer review. They are just expected to ‘learn on the job’ when accepting to undertake to work on papers for journals, and, even more notably, many will not remain working in the academic sphere.

It’s a fact that the attrition rate of young, early career researchers, ECRs in industry parlance, is very high. More than 80-90% of PhD students will not remain in academia post-PhD, and similar numbers are seen when considering the conversion from postdoctoral positions to early stage full academic roles. However, skills gained in early career academia are extremely transferable to other lines of work, perhaps most notably skills in peer review. 

Thus, one of the best ways to recruit peer reviewers for journals is to focus on the needs – the skills – of researchers, rather than to focus simply on numbers or contact sheets. Attracting good, effective researchers to work on submitted articles can be done by giving something back. Emphasizing the development of transferable skills, and by certifying and rewarding effective reviewers who do work for journals (e.g., the ReviewerCredits model) is important.

How is peer review a transferable skill?

The vast majority of peer reviewers look at the process from a negative perspective. We’ve all experienced this as researchers. Peer reviewers very often think ‘where are the issues with this article, with this piece of research’ or even worse ‘how can I stop this article from being published’? These thoughts are common, but not constructive or career enhancing.

Imagine outside academia, in any other workplace: Your boss or a co-worker asks you to comment on a document they’ve put together and you think ‘where are the issues’ or ‘how can I pull this work down or, worse, stop it from being published at all’. These are not good career enhancement strategies. You’d be far better off providing constructive, positive feedback that helps your boss or your coworker to improve their document. That’s the kind of colleague you want to be! You’ll also gain enhanced critical thinking and communication skills, empathy and understanding, and a boost to your personal development from well-presented peer review training. 

Training in peer review should emphasize the presentation of constructive positive feedback. This is a key transferable skill and our focus at ReviewerCredits.

In summary, it’s clear that peer review is a valuable skill and an essential component of academic writing and research. However, many researchers, especially young researchers, often don’t realize (because little, or no, peer review training or recognition is often available at universities globally) that this skill – the ability to be constructive and positive about the work of others – is transferable to many other areas of life – including the workplace and personal relationships.

Join us on our mission to promote and properly reward peer review!

About Gareth Dyke

Gareth Dyke has a PhD in Geology and currently works as an Academic Director at ReviewerCredits and Bentham Science Publishers. He worked for many years as a researcher at universities in Ireland and the UK and has published more than 350 peer-reviewed journal articles. He continues to peer review for journals in his field (paleontology) on a regular basis as well as creating content and training to help other researchers. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Taylor & Francis paleobiology journal Historical Biology. Click here to learn more about ReviewerCredits, our unique Reward Center for researchers, and training in peer review.

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