Acting as a peer reviewer is a serious responsibility, your chance to both evaluate (hopefully critically and positively) the research work of others in your field as well as to contribute to the development and overall quality of the scientific literature. Peer review is, and long has been, one of the bulwarks of scientific publishing, the way that papers are ‘policed’ before they appear in journals; we provide a range of training courses in this area at The Charlesworth Group through our education service, Charlesworth Knowledge, including how to carry out effective, positive, and ethical reviews of other peoples work.
Having worked as a journal editor for the last 15 years I find that, far too often, peer reviewers start their evaluation process of someone else’s work with a negative mindset: ‘How can I find reasons to reject this paper?’, rather than the opposite; ‘How can I help this colleague to improve their work?’ Although it’s human nature to see work in your field other than your own being submitted to top journals, there are strong upsides to being a positive and constructive peer reviewer.
One of these is developing a relationship with editors at top journals; if you are asked to review a paper for journal x and do a good, constructive job then your will at least be known to the editor for when you submit your next paper. No one appreciates overly negative reviews, especially journal editors.
The question of ethics in peer review is also very important. Over the years, I’ve interacted with reviewers of all kinds; those that are most useful to the journal publishing process are those who are both positive and who provide fair, balanced, and impartial assessments of colleagues work. Too often, reviewers utilise this process as a way to push forward their own work: in one recent extreme example, a reviewer requested that a large number of additional citations to their own work to be added to a paper they were assessing. Once flagged to the editorial board, further investigation revealed that, in recent assessments, this reviewer had requested numerous citations be added, the vast majority of which were to either their own papers or papers that both cited them extensively or mentioned them by name in the title.
In addition to requesting substantial additional citations of their own work be added as part of reviews, this individual also worded their comments in such a way as to imply that compliance with this request would influence a decision to accept or reject the work. The editorial board in question, quite rightly, ended up banning this reviewer from performing further work for the journal. Although extreme, this case does highlight one of the issues inherent to the peer review process; unethical behaviour because of the level of power placed in the hands of reviewers.
An understanding of the peer review system, coupled with training on how to write effective reports, can help you navigate these issues successfully, develop good working relationships with journals in your field, and enhance your career.