The quality and value of science do not rest solely on the efforts of researchers who ask important questions and develop novel ways to answer them but also on the efforts of individuals who ensure that the questions are indeed important, the paths to the answers are rigorous, and the message is clear and balanced. At present, the tool most commonly used to judge scientific research is the process known as “peer review.” Peer reviewers play a key role in contributing to the quality, the value, and even the reputation of science. Yet, many individuals come up with a variety of reasons for not participating in this valuable service to the scientific community. Here I present 7 reasons I have heard for not being a peer reviewer—and why these reasons are wrong.
Reason 1: I Have Too Little Experience to Be a Good Reviewer
Do not be fooled by the idea that only experts can provide good reviews. According to a senior editor at Nature (1), postdoctoral fellows are the best reviewers because “they are at the top of their game, well versed in the literature and politically naïve enough to tell the truth.” Additionally, assistant professors have been shown to produce higher-quality reviews than full professors (2), and a 2010 study (3) found that, for one specialty journal, peer-review decisions by graduate students were as stringent as the decisions by faculty peer reviewers. Experience may be a good teacher, but desire and attitude (which are not age dependent) can make up for experience. Therefore, the excuse of too little experience is a weak one.
There are 3 ways to get your foot in the door. The first way is to establish a track record of publishing well-written papers that are cited by others. When editors seek potential peer reviewers, they often look at the articles cited in the submitted paper. If your work is among the list of cited articles, the chances of your being asked to review a manuscript increase. Editors also regularly use databases such as PubMed and the Thomson Reuters (ISI) Web of Knowledge to identify peer reviewers. If your publications are identified by searches of these databases, then you may be asked to serve as a reviewer. Indexing services rely on key words and terms to sort and identify publications, so remember to give careful consideration to the key words and terms you use in your own publications (4, 5).
The second way is to introduce yourself to editors when you see them at conferences, or send them a note indicating your interest in serving the journal. List any publications you have so that the editor can see the specific area of focus of your research and any experience you have in scientific writing. A third way is to volunteer to co-review a submitted manuscript with a colleague, advisor, or senior faculty member. In most cases these individuals are happy to have your involvement. You can bring a potentially fresh viewpoint, can help in literature searches comparing the submitted work to previous studies, can help translate criticisms into constructive comments, and can even balance any potential reviewer bias that could arise. If you do act as a co-reviewer, be sure that the editor is informed and verifies that a co-review is acceptable.
Regardless of how you receive your first invitation to act as a peer reviewer, the key is to do a timely and helpful review. Respond quickly when asked to review a manuscript and meet the requested turnaround time for the return of the review. The reputation of a journal relies in part on offering a timely response to authors after manuscript submission. Tardy reviewers are often not asked to review a second time.
Reason 2: I Am Not Good at Criticizing Other People's Work
The thought behind this statement may actually make you a better reviewer than someone who sees the job of a peer reviewer as the expert who is obligated to criticize (be critical of) a scientific study. Peer reviewers are supposed to provide comments and suggestions—not criticisms—that are constructive rather than destructive. L. Henry Edmunds, editor of the Annals of Thoracic Surgery, has stated (6) that the most important insight a reviewer can provide is to educate authors on ways that a study could be or could have been improved so that authors can make a current or future manuscript better. He calls these constructive suggestions “the gift from Anonymous,” referring to the contributions that an individual unknown to the author can make.
In fact, a critical review is a process in which both the strengths and weaknesses of a submitted paper are considered. It is a process whereby one considers the value of the work in relation to what is already known about a topic, whether the question being asked is valid, whether the methods used to answer the question are complete and robust, and whether the answer adds to existing knowledge. As a peer reviewer you provide feedback and a recommendation, but not the final decision. The final decision rests with the editor, who one hopes uses the feedback from 2 or more reviewers as well as his/her judgment and experience. Also remember that a peer reviewer provides advice to the journal as well as to the author.
Reason 3: I Need to Understand the Entire Study to Serve as a Peer Reviewer
Although you should accept assignments to review papers only in your area of expertise, it is not always necessary that you be an expert in every aspect of the study. Some studies involve multiple types of experimental protocols, analytical techniques, and statistical analyses. Editors recognize that some studies require 2 to 3 peer reviewers with different areas of expertise. A clinician may be selected to review patient treatment, whereas a reviewer in basic science may be selected to evaluate the methods in a study. In some cases, the expertise of a statistician may be sought. Therefore, it is not critical that you be an expert in every aspect of a submitted study.
Regardless of your breadth of expertise, several good practices should be followed when reviewing a paper. First, it is helpful (and fair) to the editor and authors for you to perform a preliminary read of the manuscript soon after accepting the assignment. That way, if you find that you have too little expertise in the topic or study design, you can quickly let the editor know that you have read the submission and discovered that you are not the most appropriate person to do the peer review. The editor can then assign a new individual without undue delay. A good editor will not be upset with you, especially if the editor knows you have read the paper and were honest in assessing your ability to do a proper review. Your honesty will be remembered.
Second, you should provide comments only for those aspects of the submitted manuscript for which you have some knowledge. Like you, editors cannot be experts in all aspects of science, and if you comment (especially negatively) on some aspect of the study, the editor may give the comment more credence than it deserves. Third, let the editor know of aspects of the study that you cannot properly evaluate. This information will help the editor recognize that input from an additional peer reviewer may be warranted.
Reason 4: If I Do Not Recommend Rejection, I Will Be Obligated to See One or More Revisions
I call this reason the “gift that keeps on giving” excuse. Even if you recommend rejection, the editor and the other reviewer(s) may see merit in the study that you did not, and the authors will be asked to revise and resubmit their work. In such a case, you will be asked to reevaluate the work in light of the changes the authors have made after taking into account your previous comments. So, taking the easy route by recommending rejection does not always work.
Yes, the recommendation from a peer reviewer is one component in helping an editor decide whether a submitted manuscript is worthy of (or ready for) publication. More importantly, however, as a peer reviewer you should consider resubmissions as an opportunity, not an obligation, to see how the authors responded to your comments and how your input might have improved the manuscript.
Reason 5: Peer Review Benefits Only Authors
Senior researchers reach a point at which they feel that they rarely learn anything from doing a peer review. Many individuals feel that the recognition/reward system is flawed, because the effort required for a peer review appears to outweigh the benefits. In reality, being a peer reviewer benefits everyone, including you as the reviewer (7,–,9). Peer review:
Lets you see the newest and potentially highest-impact research.
Helps you become a better scientist by learning from the types of mistakes that authors make.
Lets you learn from the comments made by the other reviewers of the same study, if the journal grants you access to them.
Helps you become a better writer by seeing how others have formulated a question, presented their message, organized their data and results, created tables and figures, and discussed the strengths and limitations of a study.
Helps you learn how to respond to reviewer comments.
Provides insight into how editors and authors think.
May be a positive contributor in an individual's evaluation for promotion and tenure.
Is an avenue to appointment to editorial boards of journals.
Reason 6: I Will Likely Miss Something, and a Poor Study Will Get Published
Join the club. Contact your colleagues, and ask if any of them were ever taught how to evaluate and comment on a scientific paper. The closest learning experience that many of us had was a journal club, where we saw the final product after one or more rounds of review and editing. We did not know what the reviewers saw as issues with the original submission, i.e., what actually took place during the review process. What we did learn from journal clubs was that even after peer review and publication, we were sometimes able to find aspects of the study that could have been improved, limitations that could have been discussed, better ways to have addressed the question, and so on.
So you will miss something from time to time, but keep in mind that you have the other reviewers, the editor, and the publisher on your peer-review team. Editors select reviewers knowing that it takes more than one individual (and more than one set of eyes) to cover all the bases. You generally get the opportunity to see revisions of a paper and thus have the opportunity to change or reinforce your earlier recommendation about acceptance. Journals such as Clinical Chemistry have deputy editors who also look at every paper recommended for acceptance and identify problems that reviewers may have missed. A good production editor will also look for inconsistencies, lack of clarity, misidentified figures, and other items. The bottom line is that you alone are not responsible for the outcome of a submitted paper.
Reason 7: I Know the Authors
You are sometimes going to know the authors because they are likely to be in the same area of interest as you are. That does not mean that you cannot (or should not) do the review. Even if you feel uncomfortable, in some cases you are the best person to do the review. If you can do a fair, thorough evaluation of the work, then do so. On the other hand, if you have coauthored prior papers with the authors of the submitted manuscript, are going to write up a similar study, or have a bias against the authors, you have a conflict of interest and must excuse yourself as a reviewer.
Regarding conflict of interest, you, as an individual who is familiar with the authors' submitted work, may be in the best position to identify conflicts of interest the authors have that should be pointed out to the editor. So, even if you feel uncomfortable performing the peer review, you may still be in a position to help the editor, journal, and scientific community by highlighting the authors' potential conflict of interest. The editor can then take the proper action or independently verify that an important conflict of interest exists.
Peer review serves an important role in scientific publication. You can come up with any number of excuses to avoid being a peer reviewer. So why should you be a peer reviewer? Because it is better to give and receive.
Author Contributions: All authors confirmed they have contributed to the intellectual content of this paper and have met the following 3 requirements: (a) significant contributions to the conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; (b) drafting or revising the article for intellectual content; and (c) final approval of the published article.
Authors' Disclosures or Potential Conflicts of Interest: Upon manuscript submission, all authors completed the Disclosures of Potential Conflict of Interest form. Potential conflicts of interest:
Employment or Leadership: T.A. Annesley, Clinical Chemistry, AACC.
Consultant or Advisory Role: None declared.
Stock Ownership: None declared.
Honoraria: None declared.
Research Funding: None declared.
Expert Testimony: None declared.
- Received for publication January 12, 2012.
- Accepted for publication January 19, 2012.
- © 2012 The American Association for Clinical Chemistry