Peer Review: What do Postdocs Ask Us?
Cambridge University Press often delivers talks and training sessions for early career researchers on a variety of topics related to publishing. We leave plenty of time for discussion and questions…so what do postdocs ask us about peer review? Here are answers to a small selection of frequently asked questions, about both peer reviewing and being peer reviewed.
About peer reviewing
How detailed should I be with spelling and grammar when reviewing?
This is something I struggled with as an early career researcher. It’s really tempting to “copyedit” the work (or maybe that’s just me – I do now work in publishing after all!). So how much should you do?
Firstly, check the reviewer instructions for the journal you’ve been asked to review for. In the arts and humanities, reviewers are sometimes asked to comment on and advise on language issues, but this isn’t common in STEM. I’ve split what you might come across into three scenarios:
- The first is where throughout the paper, you are genuinely having to guess what the authors mean. This means you can’t actually determine (and certainly not objectively determine) whether or not the research is sound. This type of language issue really should have been picked up by editors or a pre-submission language checking/editing service, but if not, my suggestion would be to return it to the editor and explain that you don’t feel you can fairly and objectively assess the contents of the paper due to the language issues.
- The second category is possibly the trickiest. There might be a few instances of confusion, or maybe one mistake that runs consistently through the paper. You can figure it out, but if someone were to read a short section of the paper in isolation and weren’t “tuned in” to the error, it could be misinterpreted. In this situation, you should continue to review the paper, but flag your concerns to the editor and don’t recommend publication without these errors being addressed.
- The last situation is really just cosmetic editing. Yes, this includes what grammar pedants might consider heinous linguistic crimes. Perhaps the authors have an odd turn of phrase, but it’s obvious and unequivocal what they mean. Or maybe it just seems like they haven’t run a good spellcheck before submission. Don’t waste your time on these errors unless the meaning is obscured – just do the review and let the copyeditors deal with these errors.
Do I need to comment on fit for the journal, or just the science?
This is an interesting one because in reality, the final accept/reject decision is the editor’s (or editors’) call, but it’s true that some journals ask reviewers to comment on aspects of fit for the journal, novelty or contribution to the field. How do you know what’s expected?
- One of the first places to look to find out what’s expected of you is your invitation to review. Sometimes the editor will have provided very specific instructions for you and the paper in question – this could be based, for example, on a previous round of review of that paper which highlighted a need for an additional perspective or expertise (yours!).
- Journals will also often have a Guidance for Reviewers page on their website, which might suggest you specifically comment on things like “originality” or “fit” – others won’t.
- Lastly, once you accept the review, sometimes specific questions will have been set up in the online peer review system, to which you should provide your answer when you submit your review.
If you can’t find any guidance at all, there’s nothing wrong with including your opinion (e.g. if you would be surprised to see that paper in that journal because of the topic/focus/originality), but the most important thing is to review the soundness of the research– you were asked to review because this is your expertise.
Can I make my review public?
In general, you can’t, unless the journal’s policy allows for open reviews. You can often make the fact that you did a review public, but not the content. Here are a couple of things to bear in mind:
- Some companies like Publons offer a service for researchers to sort out what you can and can’t say about your reviews, and help you compile a “peer review CV”. Many publishers, Cambridge University Press included, pay to integrate with Publons for some or all of their journals. Pay attention to any T&Cs when you sign up to a service like this – it is a third party commercial service rather than part of a publisher’s peer review process or system.
- It’s worth remembering that it’s not just you who might be affected by your review! Even if you don’t make the contents of your review public, announcing on Twitter that you just reviewed an awesome paper on meerkats for the Journal of Meerkat Behaviour might affect the author (pictured: blushes and an awkward encounter at an upcoming conference) or another reviewer (who may not yet have completed their review and could be influenced by your verdict).
Do you monitor performance of peer reviewers?
The short answer is yes! The long answer is that there isn’t a standard way of doing this, and there are many reasons for doing so. Nearly every editor or journal will have their own method, some much more formal than others. Some have big databases or paid-for tools that record and report on many aspects of the peer review process (e.g. rejection rate of papers, response time to requests, turnaround time, and time since last review). Other editors just have their own spreadsheet (or even a notebook!). Some editors will “grade” reviewers or perhaps use a traffic light system to reflect the quality of review received. Others just flag things like declines to review, unusual rejection rates, or rude/unhelpful/unprofessional reviews.
The bottom line is that whichever approach is taken, this isn’t in any way to catch people out! Peer review is monitored so that journals can “look after” good reviewers and try not to inundate them with requests. It’s also to ensure we keep an eye out for fraudulent or unethical activity, ensure the feedback given to authors is useful and just, and also sometimes to identify potential candidates for the editorial board of the journal.
About being peer reviewed
What do I do if reviewers’s comments contradict one another?
If this is really major, like re-running analyses with different or additional data, then really the editor should have provided instructions as to what they expect (e.g. “we would like to see the paper include additional supporting data as suggested by reviewer 2”). If they haven’t, and the conflict is fundamental, email the editor and ask them for advice. If it’s a relatively minor point, you should just treat it the same as disagreeing with a comment. If you agree with one of the reviewers, explain in your response to the editor why you are following that recommendation, and not the other (or why you aren’t following either of the recommendations).
Do I have to address every single comment?
All the comments. Yes, you do. But you can synthesise by saying something like “In response to reviewer comments on lines 2-3 and lines 67-70, we have added a section to the methodology providing further details on the field site and sampling method”. You can also address a comment by explaining why you aren’t changing anything – it’s completely legitimate to disagree with reviewer comments provided you address these disagreements clearly, professionally, objectively and backed up with sound evidence.
If you’re interested in more similar FAQs, we have made our full training presentation available for wider use under a creative commons licence here.