Early peer-review experience: Benefits and barriers

A few years back, I wrote a brief blog post to help guide new peer-reviewers.  It seemed to me that I couldn’t be the only person spending hours searching for some kind of rubric, or a quick-start guide, to help navigate the review process that I was invited and excited to participate in.  Since then, I’ve seen reports of several cases where peer-review processes had been demonstrably fallible through lack of rigor, or had been purposefully scammed by authors in order to secure publication.  Meanwhile, there is a burgeoning group of academics, like myself, who would eagerly and meticulously serve as reviewers, if only they were given more opportunities to do so…

… graduate students and research administrators.  Since I was a grad student, I enjoyed reviewing and providing feedback on research articles.  It gave me the opportunity to provide a service to the scientific community, helped me to hone my own writing style, kept me abreast of recent research topics, and was another notch on my CV (when I could add a journal/association to the short list of those that I reviewed for).  I take this responsibility seriously, as I would want other reviewers to do for my submissions.

Most of my invitations to review have come from the few journals that I have published in, associations that I have belonged to, or having articles passed down to me from various mentors.  My graduate studies and professional experience have focused on research methodology and analysis, which typically made me “Reviewer 3” — the one that really likes your concept, but wants more details on your choice of methods and reporting of results.  Still, I do my best to keep my methodological preferences compartmentalized while I’m evaluating others’ methodological approaches.

Here’s the problem… while I’m a thoughtful reviewer of research methodology across several research disciplines, I don’t have a PhD.  Occasionally, I do a quick Internet search to find journals that put out a recent “call for reviewers”, so that I can continue to expand my horizons, to serve as a reviewer for other topics that I’m interested in.  More times than not, these call for a required “PhD or Professor in [whatever field of study]”.  Is it overzealous of me to think that I can provide a useful service, being a research administrator with a few years of relevant experience, with just a handful of publications, and a master’s degree and a few doctoral courses in statistics?  Perhaps, but I’m sure that there are others who are more experienced and less credentialed than me, who would be excellent reviewers in the particular fields that they work in.

I’m not advocating that we open the floodgates and, for example, let every graduate student with some political opinions review articles for political science journals (though it would be entertaining to see those reviews).  I’m merely pointing out that journals may be missing out on a lot of talent by setting the bar primarily by terminal academic credentials.  There are many post-docs and early-career faculty who benefit from additional reviewing experience, yet not all people in these positions are apt to review articles outside of narrow fields of expertise.  Still, there are a plethora of passionate graduate students and research administrators with broad and relevant experience to draw from, who might also professionally benefit, and who would be just as driven (perhaps more driven) to provide this notable service to the research community.  When it comes down to career priorities, I propose that fledgling researchers might be more inclined to give due diligence to peer-review work, as compared to established researchers who must focus primarily on securing funding, orchestrating research projects, and writing manuscripts of their own.

As our research culture begins to embrace interdisciplinary collaboration, Open Access publication, alternative publication impact metrics (AltMetrics), and citizen science… we still seem to be lagging when it comes to setting more inclusive qualifications for reviewing scientific literature.   Specifically, for those of us who have spent years in academic research administration, or in the private sector doing scientific research – where attaining a PhD means little more than gambling on student loans versus getting a pay raise for doing the same work that we are already doing – is it fair to exclude us from participating more-fully in the scientific community?  Perhaps.