This is a joint post by Steve Heard and Timothée Poisot (who blogs over here). Steve is an Associate Editor for The American Naturalist and for FACETS, while Timothée is an Associate Editor for PLOS Computational Biology and Methods in Ecology & Evolution. However, the opinions here are our own, and may or may not be shared by those journals, by other AEs, or by anyone, really.
Working as an (associate) editor can be rewarding, but it’s not always easy – in part because finding reviewers can be a challenge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, editors often think first to call on senior scientists; but many of us have learned that this isn’t the only or the best path to securing helpful peer reviews. In our experience, some of the best reviews come from early career researchers (ECRs). ECR reviewers tend to complete reviews on time, offer comprehensive comments reflecting deep familiarity with up-to-date literature, and to be constructive and kind while delivering criticism. Online survey data confirm that our positive impressions of ECR reviewers are widely shared among editors (who nonetheless underuse ECRs), while other surveys indicate that ECRs are very willing to review, with many even feeling honoured by such requests. [Both sets of surveys mentioned here were particular to ecology and evolution, although we suspect the results apply more widely.]
So there’s a paradox here: we (editors in general) love ECR reviews, but we underuse them. Why? In a nutshell, ECRs are harder to find. Senior researchers have published more papers, given more talks, pre-populate journal reviewer databases, and have more stable addresses. If one of us is handling a paper close to our own research area, we can generally rattle off half a dozen relevant reviewers – but they’re heavily weighted to the names we’ve been seeing for years. Absent a conscious effort, then, we succumb to the paradox and use a grey-hair-biased set of reviewers.
Which brings us to the meat of this post. How can we match up willing ECRs with willing editors, to the benefit of both? Here are some ideas; but please help us build the list using the Replies.
What you can do, if you’re a willing ECR:
- Suggest to your supervisor that you’d like to review, either jointly with them or instead of them. (Such arrangements should always be approved by the inviting editor before they are executed – but such offers are unlikely to be refused.)
- Mention your willingness to senior colleagues who are editors. (It’s best to do this at conferences, etc., because senior colleagues in your own department are not likely to use you as reviewers.)
- Email the managing editor of journals that interest you, and ask to be added to their reviewer databases. These are often keyword searchable, so be ready to describe your expertise.
- Interact with colleagues about their research. All journals will ask authors to suggest reviewers, and if we’ve had an interesting conversation with you, we are likely to suggest you as a reviewer.
- Have a look at the Guide to Peer Review in Ecology & Evolution, from the British Ecological Society. It will help you navigate your own peer review experience, but also suggests some strategies about how to be a good reviewer. Once you do one peer review well, other invitations are sure to follow!
What you can do, if you’re an editor:
- When inviting an old fogey to review, customize the reviewer invitation letter to encourage the invitee to suggest an ECR instead (for instance, one of their students or postdocs). The ECR might review solo, or as a team with the old fogey. (Again, such arrangements should always be approved by the editor before they’re executed.)
- If you have an old fogey in mind, check their web site for postdocs or senior grad students who might make good reviewers. Granted, it’s difficult to predict who’s going to be a good reviewer based on a picture and a research blurb. However, you may be surprised to find an ECR you don’t know already in your journal’s reviewer database (some of which include ratings of past reviews). If not: well, everyone has to be unproven at some point. By the way: you can also use this opportunity to address other inequities in the review process by inviting under-represented minorities.
- Find out if there are databases in your discipline that could identify suitable ECRs. Zimmerman et al. (2011) suggested the establishment of a formal database of willing student-mentor reviewer teams. We don’t know that any such databases actually exist, but related ones can be co-opted – such as, in ecology and evolution, DiversifyEEB.
- Keep your social network ear to the ground. At least in ecology and evolution, there is a critical mass of ECRs talking about their research on Twitter. Both of us have discovered willing reviewers this way, and received stellar reviews from them.
- Don’t forget non-academics. There are plenty of scientists, both ECR and more senior, who don’t work in universities but who nonetheless belong to our scientific community. For some articles, having the particular perspective of government, industry, or NGO scientists may be critical. But for any article, there are reservoirs of expertise outside the hallways of university academia.
Thanks to multiple Twitter folk for suggestions and encouragement for this post, including @BiolumiJEFFence, @naupakaz, @academchick, @KStackWhitney, @CalebHasler, @gbaucom, @SJC_fishy, and others we’ve probably missed.