Reviewing manuscripts as an early career scientist

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I find this weird, but apparently, some journals in some academic fields don’t allow grad students or postdocs to serve as peer reviewers. I do get the idea that professional experience and expertise should be required to conduct a peer review. They’re called “peer” reviews for a reason.

Then, the question is: are early career scientists our peers?

I’ll answer this question using a backwards approach. If I look at the quality of the reviews provided by early careers scientists, then most definitely they are my academic peers.

In the course of editing duties for a couple society journals, I routinely solicit reviews from early career researchers. I’m going to go out on a limb to generalize and contrast reviews from early career researchers with those from well-established actively researching faculty, here’s what I what I’ve observed:

The early career researchers provide reviews that are more detailed, and more grounded in the recent literature.

The early career researchers provide reviews that are both more kind and more rigorous.

The early career researchers are more often willing to re-review a manuscript they’ve already seen.

The early career researchers are more likely to evaluate the manuscript that is handed to them, rather than remark on what they wish the manuscript was.

The early career researchers are more likely to accept a review request and submit it on time.

The early career researchers are more likely to volunteer information about a relationship that may constitute a conflict of interest.

So, then, why the heck would I ever solicit a review from a senior researcher?  It turns out that a lot of them do great reviews, too. And some manuscripts have a greater benefit from having a reviewer who is more directly familiar with the history of the work in the field. I think most reviews are really good. It’s just that, once in a while, you end up with a dud. And those duds tend to be more senior people who are phoning it in. Though I think duds are not that common.

One of the problems in soliciting early career reviewers is identifying them. They might be doing highly relevant work, but a reasonable amount of bibliographic research might not deliver them to you so readily. And it is so, so common to find an early career person who would be a great reviewer but you literally cannot find their current professional email address online. I understand why folks limit access to their email address for safety reasons, but this sure makes it hard to provide them with access to the opportunity to provide peer reviews.

If you’re an early career researcher, how can you let editors know that you’re available and interested in reviewing? You can definitely let them know directly. You also can make sure that you have a professional website with a durable email address. If you’re in ecology and evolutionary biology, also can register yourself in the Early Career Reviewer Database maintained by Susan Perkins. If you’re an editor, you can request access to this database. I’ve found it to be useful on several occasions.

I’ve spent a bit of time looking, but as far as I can tell, there aren’t similar types of databases in other disciplines. Do you know of any? Does this issue matter to you? How would you feel about stepping up and creating such a database for your own field? I think a leader is a person who sees the need for something to get done, and they just go ahead and do it.

If you’re looking for more specific suggestions about how to identify early career researchers for reviews, or how to create review opportunities for yourself as an early career researcher, check out this great post on Scientist Sees Squirrel.

One thought on “Reviewing manuscripts as an early career scientist

  1. I would add that early career scientists are less attached to certain ideas (since they didn’t publish on them earlier in their career) and are more open to results that may not meet their pre-conceived notions.

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