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Honing your peer review skills with ScienceOpen

I remember my first peer review. An Editor for a well-respected Elsevier journal in Earth Sciences emailed me during the second year of my PhD, asking me to peer review a paper for them. I hadn’t published anything by this point of my PhD, and had received no formal training in how to peer review papers. I initially declined, but was pretty much coerced into doing it, despite my resignations. “It’ll be great training and experience”, I was told. Go on. Go on go on go on go on go on. In the end, I did the review, but got my supervisor to check it over to make sure I was fair, thorough, and constructive.  I remember him saying “This is surprisingly good!”, and thinking ‘Thanks..’. But his response was more because it was my first peer review, without any training in how to do it, rather than anything to do with my ability as a scientist. And rightly so – why should I have been expected to do a good job of peer review at such an early stage in my career, and with no formal training?

From Father Ted. Sorry for non-Brits.
From Father Ted. Sorry for non-Brits.

I wonder then how many other PhD students are told the same, and thrown into the deep end. ‘Peer review for this journal and receive fame and glory. It doesn’t matter how well you do it, as long as you do it.’

Part of the problem here stems from a lack of training in peer review early on in academic careers. There might be workshops at your university in how to do one in practice, but there is no replacement for the real thing. Many of us participate in journal clubs, critically discussing papers, and we critique papers as part of our daily research routines. But this isn’t the same thing as being asked to assess verify research which then goes on to become part of the published record.

ScienceOpen provides a great training ground for peer review. There are over 100 public peer reviews already on the website, each one a civil, constructive, and open contribution to the research process. There are some great examples here and here.

There are almost 12 million full text articles and article records on ScienceOpen. Finding one within your field of expertise should be fairly easy for anyone who knows how to use a search engine. Like dinosaurs? Here’s 2000 articles on them. Researching breast cancer? Here’s 758,000 relevant articles. Want high energy physics papers from the arXiv? Here are more than 800 articles. Etc.

This is your arena for practising peer review and refining your skills. But while doing so, you also contribute to the public record and discourse surrounding research. As such, referees have a responsibility to:

  1. Be thorough
  2. Be constructive
  3. Be fair and objective

All you need to do a formal peer review is to have 5 research objects associated with your ORCID account. This minimum is to ensure that there is a base level of expertise during peer review. But for those without 5 objects yet, there is also a public commenting system, again where all that is required is an ORCID account.

You might ask, ‘What is the point in peer reviewing something that has already been peer reviewed?’ The simple answer is, isn’t that what you’re doing every time you read a paper? You’re reading it critically, finding the weak points and the strengths, and thinking how you can build on it.

This is also the whole point of journal clubs. Find the weaknesses in a paper: did they perform the statistical analysis correctly? Did they use the right controls? Are the conclusions supported by the data? Posting these conversations as peer reviews on ScienceOpen is a perfect way to contribute to open discussion about research articles. It doesn’t matter how old or well-established research papers are. All deserve to be treated with the same level of critique.

But why not make this process public? Your brain is processing knowledge, asking questions of research, trying to work out how to constructively progress what was been done before you. Let others tap into your knowledge and expertise, and your thought processes. This is how science progresses the best: when viewed as part of a constructive, collaborative, and open process!

As an academic, you also have to fight to get your voice heard. As a grad student, publicly peer reviewing articles is a great to get your name, and your voice, out there while contributing to science. Research articles are never the end of the story: they’re just the beginning!

The great thing at ScienceOpen is that there is no-one obliging you to do peer review. And you get to perform it on articles of your choice. You’re also not put on the spot – no one is saying ‘Do this within two weeks’. That’s not to say there isn’t an element of editorial control, which we facilitate through Collections. This means there are no potential negative consequences for performing post-publication peer review, while the potential benefits to yourself and your research field are great.

As reviews can also be conducted on either arXiv ‘pre-prints‘ or already published papers as part of post-publication discussions (which some people also call ‘science’..), there is also substantially less pressure on referees as they’re not acting as gatekeepers to the published record.

And importantly, you get public credit for your work. All reviews are public, and assigned a Creative Commons attribution (CC BY) license, and a CrossRef DOI. This means it gets automatically integrated with ORCID and your professional academic record.

So, checklist. Public peer review with ScienceOpen is great for:

  1. Learning and practicing your peer review skills
  2. Receiving recognition for your work
  3. Contributing to public discourse around research

If you have any further questions, or would like to sign up to become a Collection Editor, leave a comment or drop an email to

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