Why review manuscripts?
If you have published a paper, then you should be getting involved in reviewing as well. Rather than see reviewing as ‘performing a duty’ to the scientific community, consider that reviewing manuscripts (especially those that are relevant to your work) as one of the most useful things you can do as an early-career researcher. Yes, it takes time—maybe 2 work days for the first batch of reviews you will do. It involves critically reading the manuscript (next post) and constructively writing the review (third post). But, these two days can be as educational as any other activity you’ll do during your PhD. Here are some reasons why reviewing is worth your time:
Keeping up-to-date with the latest research: It takes at least months, often years, from the point a manuscript is first submitted until it is finally published online. As a reviewer, you will have priority access to what others are thinking about and doing right now, as opposed to what they did a few years back. This is, of course, not a free pass to borrow other people’s ideas, but can trigger new ideas or directions for your own research.
Digging deeper into research: Reviewing a paper is more than just reading and judging, it requires completing a constructive evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the work. This is a good chance for you to take the time to really make the effort to understand hypotheses and methods behind key research on your topic.
Learning how to be a better author: By the time you review your first paper you’ll probably have published one or two papers yourself. This means that you’ll have dealt with the vagaries of having your work reviewed, and probably have accused reviewers of being ignorant twits. I certainly did, until I reviewed a number of papers and found myself often scratching my head trying to figure out what authors actually did. Nothing improved how I present my own work more than reviewing other peoples’ work. It also helped me realise that any misunderstandings by reviewers (or their ‘lack of insight’ into my own manuscripts) always stemmed from a lack of clarity on my part. Finally, going through the review process as a reviewer gave me greater insight about what works and doesn’t work when it comes to responding to reviewer comments.
Learning from other reviewers: When you review a manuscript, you won’t be the only one to evaluate that piece of work. After the editor makes a decision, they should send you all of the other reviewers’ comments as well as the comments from their own reading. This is really one of the best ways to learn and improve your critical thinking—it gives you a chance to see how your reading of the strengths/weaknesses of a scientific piece of work compares to other experts’ interpretations (but don’t fall into the trap of assuming that they are correct and you aren’t if there are any differences in your reviews).
Having some influence over scientific directions: Reviewing papers gives you the opportunity to have some influence over the direction of scientific research in your field. Of course, this power should not be taken lightly or abused (which does happen), but reviewing does provide the opportunity to push authors to think more carefully about hypotheses, to consider alternative explanations, or to use more robust statistical methods. One of the biggest perks to being a reviewer is the opportunity to improve potentially important work in your field, as more accessible research will always have a bigger impact. A common misconception is that high impact work by others detracts from your work, whereas it can actually boost your entire field.
Enhancing your CV: Reviewing for journals is one of the best ways to mark your rise through academia. An important section in the academic’s CV is where we list evidence of our esteem in the scientific community, and the simplest way of doing this is to demonstrate that other scientists have asked for your assistance in evaluating the quality of a piece of research in your field.
Becoming an editor: Ultimately, reviewing papers is the best route to becoming an editor. If you consistently provide a given journal with constructive and insightful reviews that are submitted on time, then chances are they will one day ask you to handle some papers yourself. Reviewing often will give you the necessary experience to handle papers as an editor. I had reviewed ~150 papers during my PhD and postdoc, so by the time I was asked to become an editor I felt that I had a pretty good grasp on the process. As an editor, you’ll benefit even more from the above points, and it can be seen as an important addition to your academic CV.
How are reviewers chosen?
Any manuscript submitted to a journal will go through a few key steps before reaching reviewers. First, it will probably be checked by a head editor, or someone in charge of filtering out manuscripts that are clearly not relevant to the journal. Second, it will then be assigned a handling editor (a.k.a. associate editor, editor, etc.), who will read the manuscript more carefully before deciding whether it should be sent to reviewers. At higher-tier journals, editors may send a synopsis of the manuscript to an expert asking whether the work is novel enough to consider sending to review (a filter primarily about novelty). If a manuscript clears each of these hurdles, the editor will then send out requests to reviewers asking them to give their comments. At this point, there are many strategies that editors can use to find reviewers.
Author-suggested reviewers: In most journals, authors submitting a manuscript are asked to suggest reviewers that would be qualified to review their work. This can be a bit of a game, as editors have to be careful that authors don’t suggest their closest buddies. However, most authors are pretty honest about identifying the best people for the job.
System-generated suggestions: Most systems for handling submissions to journals will be linked to one or more databases that editors can search for relevant reviewers. These will generally include the database of researchers who have accounts on that journal’s system (which often asks for keywords), and databases that find author matches based on titles and keywords of published papers.
Reviewer-suggests reviewers: Most often the author- or system-suggested reviewers are experts in the field who themselves have little time to review papers (not least because their names are constantly suggested). However, because these researchers are well-connected in their field, they often have good suggestions for alternative reviewers and the system provides them with the opportunity to send these suggestions back to the editor.
How to get requests to review?
It is pretty unlikely that you will get requests to review for a journal before you’ve been published (usually as a first author). Once your work is out there, then the door is open for editors to choose you, so it’s critical that you make it easy for them to find you! Based on how editors find reviewers (above), you can greatly increase your chances by following a few simple steps:
Make a Google scholar page: Google scholar has become the quickest and most common way of finding relevant work. An editor, doing a keywords search might come up with one of your manuscripts (especially as we often search for more recently published work). If you have a Google scholar page, there will be a link under your name in the authorship list, giving the editor the chance to find out more information about you. Make sure you keep your affiliation, status, and homepage link up-to-date!
Have a homepage: From your Google scholar page, editors will go looking for a homepage to get more details about you. The most important thing here is to provide your email address, so make this obvious! What is not important is how fancy your webpage is (an editor doesn’t want to wait 5 minutes for your page to load). However, it really helps to have a short blurb about your interests from which the editor might gain an idea of how relevant a manuscript is to your interests.
Sign up to manuscript handling systems: You can further increase your chances (and make the editors’ job simpler) by creating accounts on the authorship system of journals that are most relevant to your work. These are likely to be journals publishing work that you find
interesting and relevant. To do this, just find the links on the journal webpages for where to submit a manuscript to that journal and make an account there. Reviewers are selected from the same system. When setting up your account, the system will often request keywords. Consider these carefully—use keywords that represent your broad area (but not too broad) and try to create some continuity across your Google scholar page, your homepage, and here.
Setting yourself up in this way will significantly increase your chances of being asked to review (they will also help with your profile as a researcher; see this post). Keeping them up-to-date will also help the editor know that you are still active in research (which is not always obvious for PhD-level or early postdoc researchers).
Where to start
Are you keen to review papers but not getting invites? There are several more proactive ways in which you can become involved in this aspect of the scientific process.
Senior researchers in your lab: The first place to start is right in your lab (or department) with researchers who are already being asked to review by journals. For example, asking your supervisor to work with you when reviewing manuscripts that are relevant to your PhD is a great place to start. I’ve often accepted reviews even when I haven’t had time to do them simply because they are close to the topic of a PhD or Masters student in my lab (in these cases I always ask the editor for permission to do the review with a student). The student writes a first draft of the review, which we then discuss together. The first few times I take responsibility for writing and submitting the final review, but as they get more experienced and proficient, I pass relevant reviews directly to them to take over this process (and I still offer to provide feedback on the review before they submit them). In these cases, I generally write to the editor suggesting my student’s name and noting that I will work with them in formulating the review. The same process could/should also happen with senior postdocs in the lab who are already receiving requests themselves.
Early-career reviewer database: A recent initiative is the early-career reviewer database—or, more simply, an online spreadsheet with a long list of early-career researchers who are keen to receive some papers to review (you can find it here). Again, it’s important for you to keep your details up-to-date, including updating details about any papers you recently published, and to make sure you think carefully about your keywords.
Make yourself known to other researchers in your field: Often, the first place an editor goes is to the author-suggested reviewers. Chatting to others in your field at conferences can help them be aware of your existence, and maybe get yourself put on their suggested list. After all, authors benefit from suggesting eager and relevant reviewers to review their paper, as journals can reject a paper if reviewers keep refusing.
Ask the editors directly: Obviously, the most direct way to get requests is to just ask editors. All journals have a list of editors on their webpage – you might be surprised how many you know! Even if you don’t know them directly, there are likely to be editors who have collaborated with some people you do know. Don’t hesitate to get in touch! Finding reviewers is challenging, and editors are always on the lookout to find enthusiastic reviewers.
In the next of this three-part blog post, we’ll talk through the next steps once you’ve been asked to review a manuscript: how to read critically!