As an Early Career Researcher (ECR), being invited to peer review is an important milestone. It shows that a journal Editor recognizes you as an expert, and believes that you can evaluate the work of others. But, once you’ve accepted the invitation to review, worry can creep in – you might ask yourself if you actually know enough to be reviewing the paper? Are you qualified to question a central aspect of the paper that the authors seem confident about? I want to address these fears in this blog post; specifically, I want to reassure ECR reviewers that it is important to point out all the issues that you see in the paper you are reviewing – no matter how big or small they may seem – and to try not to second guess your ideas and suggestions.
One thing ECRs (including myself) often struggle with is the confidence to step back and take a broad view of the contributions of the paper or to identify its big problems. That is, it is relatively simple to work out if a sentence structure doesn’t make sense, or if the methods have critical problems. It can be more challenging and intimidating to assess the central assumptions of a paper, or determine if the research you are reviewing contributes enough to the field to merit publication. Addressing these bigger components is important and should be included in the reviews you write – either positive or negative – to help inform the Editor’s decision and feedback.
Highlighting key issues in a manuscript can generally have two outcomes, both of which will ultimately help improve the quality of the reviewed paper. One, if there is a genuine issue with the paper, you pointing it out will mean it is modified before publication, helping to maintain the standard of published science. Two, even where the science is sound, pointing out confusion you experienced will likely lead to the writing being revised, which will allow other readers of the published paper to understand it more easily.
Overall, I find it useful to remember that peer review is a subjective process, which is part of the reason more than one reviewer is invited to evaluate each paper. Therefore, I can feel confident in highlighting any relevant issues, as this will help the paper be its best (both in terms of scientific rigor and writing style) when published.
Related RCEF blogs:
Another article you may find useful:
Falkenberg, L.J. and P.A. Soranno. 2018. Reviewing reviews: An evaluation of peer reviews of journal article submissions. Limnology & Oceanography Bulletin 27: 1-5.