Peer review is a central tenet of the evaluation of academic research. Peer reviewing manuscripts for journal publication is seen as part of a researcher’s service.

Graduate students, who are supposed to be training in the sciences, should therefore clearly be participating in, and receiving training in, constructive peer review. Postdocs are researchers in a position of mentored independence—working on their own projects and research plans, and learning how to manage a research group from an independent PI. As such, postdocs should already be capable of being fully involved as independently-invited reviewers in the peer review process.

But how involved are these early career researchers (ECRs) in by the Early Career Advisory Group indicated that of the 92% surveyed who had undertaken reviewing activities, more than half (including 37% of graduate students) had done so apparently without the involvement of their advisor.

I was at the ASAPBio meeting on peer review in February (http://asapbio.org/peer-review) when Mark Patterson of eLife presented this data. I didn’t find it surprising; I was fully aware of the practice of advisors asking ECRs to carry out reviews on their behalf. What I did find surprising was the number of people in the room who were surprised by this statistic, particularly senior researchers, and representatives of publishers and funding agencies. A quick informal survey of my ECR peers suggested that every single one of us had “ghostwritten” a peer review report: that is, we had carried out peer review of a manuscript, written a report, and submitted it to our supervisor, who had submitted the report (or some version of it) under their own name.

Why could this happen?

The reasons may vary. In my own experience, it was that the journal was not permissive of ECR reviews. For others, it may be that the advisor did not ask permission from the editor first, and so potentially jeopardizes the confidentiality of peer review. This is somewhat in line with the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers, which states that “Supervisors who wish to involve their students or junior researchers in peer review must request permission from the editor and abide by the editor’s decision.” For others, perhaps it is just “what is done”, or, more likely, the experience that they had during their own training.

But is it really a problem if the names of graduate students and postdocs are not actually entered as co-reviewers? On the face of it, it may not seem like a problem; after all, who sees the names? The answer is: the journal editors. Currently, there is a desire to increase the number of peer reviewers in the system, and a growing literature on the lack of reviewers, both in terms of actual numbers, but also in terms of the diversity of the reviewer pool. So there is a considerable advantage to be gained by journals facilitating and recognizing, the participation of ECRs in peer review. If each “reviewer” is actually equivalent to a group of graduate students and postdocs in a trenchcoat, it’s in the journal’s best interest to identify who is actually doing the reviews. A lack of reviewers in a system with a continuously expanding number of graduate students and postdocs is unlikely, even if this increasing number also leads to more publications. If there are more publications, there are more authors, which means more reviewers. Greater transparency could lead to greater opportunities for advisors and journals to train reviewers. In addition, this would ensure that ECRs who want to can receive credit for carrying out peer review. Ultimately, it is important to ensure that scholarly work is correctly attributed to those who have carried it out. We are hopeful that many will agree with us, that this small modification in peer review practices has the potential to have many benefits.

How do we ensure ECR peer review participation is recognized?

At Future of Research, we are leading an effort aiming to gauge and deal with the issue of unrecognized scholarly activity, especially by ECRs, in a number of ways:

Gathering data about peer review experiences and opinions

First, we have opened a survey asking about experiences and opinions on the peer review process that we hope you fill out and share with your peers.

These data will be shared in an upcoming publication, and on our #ECRPeerTeview resource page to educate the community more broadly about the extent of the issue and the current barriers to increasing inclusion in peer review.

Gathering data about journal practices

We are also collaborating in TRANSPOSE (TRANsparency in Scholarly Publishing for Open Scholarship Evolution, a grassroots project to crowdsource journal policies on peer review and preprints. The project is a collaborative effort across a number of different organizations dedicated to making publishing more transparent. The project has been accepted as part of the Scholarly Communication Institute 2018 Meeting in Chapel Hill, NC. This year’s meeting theme is Overcoming Risk (http://trianglesci.org/), and one of the risks identified in our project for ECRs is ensuring their scholarly contribution is recognized. ECRs may feel hesitant to contribute to peer review conducted in the name of their advisor; and advisors may not disclose names of others involved in review where journal policies suggest such common practices may have punitive consequences. Providing appropriate and ethical credit for their involvement would reduce their risk.

Making recommendations

Once we have assessed the barriers to ECR recognition, we will recommend best practices for journals and editorial boards (currently including language clarifying expectations and a textbox to supply names of co-reviewers). We will include these recommendations side-by-side with the survey data with the goal of motivating all parties involved—journals, advisors, and ECRs—to better understand the issues and to implement solutions.

Conclusion

We are gathering resources and information on peer review at our #ECRPeerReview resource page. We hope you will help us by participating in the survey and sharing it with your colleagues – and please join the conversation online under the hashtag #ECRPeerReview.

This post is part of the #ECRPeerReview effort, to evaluate the peer review experiences of early career researchers.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

Gary McDowell

Gary McDowell is Executive Director of The Future of Research, Inc. (http://futureofresearch.org/), a nonprofit organization seeking to champion, engage and empower early career researchers with evidence-based resources to help them make improvements to the research enterprise. He is a COMPASS alumnus.


Rebeccah Lijek

Rebeccah Lijek is an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College.