What makes a great scientist? Part 1: peer review

PeerReviewIn a somewhat pretentious move, I have decided to start a brief series within my blog (hopefully will also be an excuse to write more often) discussing components of what it means to be a (great) scientist, or more pragmatically what things you may want to pay attention to when trying to secure a job in academia. This will not be a comprehensive or particularly well-organized compilation. It will also be based on my own views, and as a disclaimer I don’t think I am a “great” scientist. I just want to share some thoughts and hopefully also provide some useful information.

Today I start this series with a component that is probably not considered as “key” by many: peer review. Reviewing other people’s work is essential for scientific advancement, at least within our working model. Even if the model was to change (a topic for another entry perhaps), the fact is that science needs peer reviewing (pre or post publication). And beyond the greater good, my work as a reviewer has been valued during job applications, so there are “selfish” reasons to review.

The problem with reviewing is that there are relatively few tools to quantify/showcase your contributions. I usually just add one section at the end of my CV including a list of journals for which I have reviewed. Not the most prominent location and not easy to verify independently (I mean, I could easily “boost” my profile saying I review for Nature and Science even if I have not). So reviewing is probably not going to be the key factor in making me “great” (top candidate for the job). However, it is important and there are some options out there to emphasize this component.

A recent blog entry by Prof. Corey Bradshaw talked about his recent discovery of Publons. This is a site dedicated to keep an independent record of your work as reviewer for scientific journals (also includes your editorial work). I have been using Publons for about three years myself and whole-heartedly endorse it. It is very easy. After registering, you just have to forward them a copy of the “thank you for reviewing” email and you will have a verified record online for all to see. Some journals now even offer to inform Publons on your behalf. The system preserves your anonymity by just showing the year in which the review was completed and the journal. However, logging into your own profile, you can see the manuscript title and if it was published even follow how well it is doing (altmetrics). I haven’t done so yet but one can also upload reviewer comments. Publons also provides some simple stats of how you compare to others in your field and institution. Because not everyone is using Publons, the statistics have to be taken with a grain of salt. For instance, I am listed as being in the 92nd percentile by number of reviews completed in my field, but I suspect I am not quite there, still it is interesting to see. Once my profile was set, I placed a link on my personal website and mentioned it on my CV when submitting applications. Not sure if that is making a difference, but at least you can check I have not yet review for Nature or Science! [Because I started reviewing before Publons existed and I learned about it, there are some reviews which are not listed there. I did not find those “thank you” emails. So the time to sign up for a free Publons profile is immediately after your first review!]

Publons makes it easier to keep an independent record of your work as reviewer, but it does not tackle the bigger problem. As I said before, reviewing is not often viewed as a “key” component of a great scientist. That lack of importance may also be a reason why it is harder and harder to find suitable reviewers and why people are arguing we need to change the system.

Beyond a general recommendation for those involved in hiring committees to consider how candidates contribute to the peer-review system. I have been wondering if we could have more basic reward system. Something like BetterPoints. I can get points for biking to work which can be redeemed for free ice-cream*, why not for reviewing? Some journals already offer incentives to reviewers (free online access, one free colour figure in your next manuscript – cheeky way to also get you to submit to their journal). Independently Publons could associate with publishers to get book discounts, with travel agencies to get cheaper airfare, with societies to get discount registrations to meeting… There are many possibilities! Certainly, there may be potential issues too. For example, I don’t like the idea of directly paying for peer-reviews as I think this could severely bias the system. However, if I can get a free ice-cream for using an app that tracks where I bike, Could I not get something, say free ice-cream**, for reviewing the work of my peers?

*dissapointedly free ice-cream is actually not one of the rewards offered, but you get the point
**yes, I love ice-cream 🙂

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