Peer Pressure

Recently I was, for the first time ever, asked to peer review a paper. My initial response was one of bemusement at the idea that someone thinks I know what I’m talking about, followed by a brief flurry of excitement. Hey, wait a minute, I do know what I’m talking about! But then I found myself with a lingering and deep seated feeling of “Ok, so how the hell am I supposed to do this?”

Unfortunately, as with many other things in science, no one ever really teaches you how to do this. Much of the learning curve in academic life, by this point, seems to lie in asking friends and colleagues (and the internet) how you’re supposed to do whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish. And thankfully, the internet is always there, even if your colleagues are away at a conference or whatever.

For example, Ethan Siegel recently posted an article called The 4 Jobs of a Referee in Peer Review over on Starts With A Bang – and it’s a must read for anyone in my position (i.e. anyone who’s still trying to figure out what they’re doing here and how they’re supposed to be doing it).

[citation needed]

So first off, for anyone who’s still wondering – peer review is an essential component of how modern science works. The opening paragraph of the Wikipedia entry sums it up quite nicely:

Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people of similar competence to the producers of the work (peers). It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards of quality, improve performance, and provide credibility. In academia peer review is often used to determine an academic paper’s suitability for publication.

While it’s true that the peer review system isn’t without its flaws, and you’ll hear almost anyone who’s ever tried to publish anything griping about their reviewers, it’s probably the best system we can have right now.

The number of reviewers, mind you, varies wildly. My own preference would be to have 3 reviewers (a la Minority Report), though the actual number of reviewers varies from journal to journal. Many only have two. Some, surprisingly, only have one. And it would concern me a little, having only one anonymous individual deciding the fate of my work – disconcertingly, there’s no guarantee that a reviewer doesn’t have certain… agendas.

As a peer reviewer, you’re charged with a simple task – make sure that this paper is actually a valid contribution to the wider scientific community. Whether it’s a magnificent piece of saintly writing, or a load of utter garbage, your job is to look over it and give a fair and balanced opinion. And give a recommendation – should it be published? Revised? Rejected?

This being my first time and all, I’ve asked advice and opinions from various people I know, from postdocs to professors. While it will no doubt be similar in some ways to Ethan’s blog post, I feel compelled to write up a post of my own on how to be a peer reviewer. So watch this space.

As for the paper I reviewed? Obviously, I’m not going to say anything about that. Writing about any of the finer details here would be incredibly unprofessional. I’ll simply say that I believe the review I provided was fair, balanced, and the recommendation I gave was the most logical course of action.

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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