Among the specificities that make academic research a really special world, one stands out as an amazing achievement: the peer review process. Scientific results exist from the moment they are published and available to the scientific community. So we need to publish, but we need to publish good, verified science and for that, we have developed a system whereby each scientific study must go through a thorough check by independent experts in the field before it can be deemed worthy of publication.

For the reviewer, it means taking time on your already very busy schedule, to provide constructive comments on the work of someone who is likely a competitor, who may even be doing something you didn’t think of, or on which you are currently working.So picture this: you are going to help this competitor publish – because this really should be the ultimate goal of a reviewer – either by accepting the manuscript for publication, and/or by making suggestions for improvement. You will do so on you own time, meaning at the expend of your own work and your student’s progress. You will do it for free. And your altruism and professional conscience will not even be rewarded by gratitude, because you will likely do it anonymously.

So, are we scientists utterly stupid? How can such a system really work in this world? Could you picture Ford sending (anonymously and for free) constructive comments on how to improve the latest prototype of Toyota? Yes, it works for us, and pretty well with that, thank you very much. Of course, there are glitches, with the occasional sloppiness, unfairness or other form of unprofessional behaviour. But globally these are exceptions and this system is really something I am proud to be part of.

There are many reasons why reviewing papers is good not only for the community but also for the reviewer, if only to hone skills of critical thinking. But here I want to insist on the necessity to participate to the system. Indeed, for this system to work, we need reviewers and these are increasingly difficult to find, especially with the rise of publication numbers. Each paper is reviewed by two to three experts, obviously more if it is rejected and submitted elsewhere. So do the maths.

I’ll do a post later on how I consider one should approach and conduct a manuscript review, but for now the message is this: for the system to function, everyone must play along and review at least as many times as he/she has been reviewed. If you count on average four reviews per publication, you can easily check if you are giving to the community, or profiting from it.

Chances are you should review more papers than you currently do! Or, you could also decline the next review request and instead send my post to 100 people, hoping that one of them will be convinced and do more reviews. That will probably even the balance…

phd100107s

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