As a graduate student researcher, I find I spend an awful lot of time waiting. Whether it’s pacing around the laboratory while a chemical synthesis wraps up, or doodling at my desk as a simulation nears completion, science tends to test my patience pretty regularly. With some experience I think I’ve started to cherish some of these idle moments: they’re a great opportunity to grab a snack, brew a cup of coffee, or catch up with social media.
However, I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy the seemingly endless wait while a manuscript is out for peer review. In this period, my excitement about wrapping up a piece of work has been tempered by anxiousness: What if the reviewers disagree with my scientific approach? Did I really track down every last bug in my analysis script? In this state of scientific limbo, it’s tough to be patient: it’s tempting to continually refresh the manuscript status page, google average peer review times, or doom-scroll social media.
Why is peer review so mentally taxing?
For one, this portion of the publishing process is shrouded in mystery. After pouring hundreds of hours of work into experimentation, and several more into crafting an eloquent scientific narrative, you must now send off your manuscript to a set of anonymous reviewers for (hopefully constructive) feedback. In addition to judging scientific merit, the reviewers will also weigh in on the all-important consideration of “fit”: does your paper meet the (often unwritten) standards for scientific impact in your selected journal?
Peer review can also be frustratingly inconsistent. When a recent manuscript I submitted came back, 3 of 4 reviewers recommended publication and heaped praise on the work, whereas one reviewer recommended we return to the drawing board entirely! Horror stories of the dreaded “Reviewer Two” are everywhere; an overly negative report from a single reviewer can lead an editor to turn down your manuscript. Even more frustrating is the frequency of “rebounds”: a manuscript that is roundly rejected in one journal is sometimes accepted outright by a different slate of peer reviewers in another journal!
Peer review can be especially challenging for early career researchers. Sometimes anonymity brings out the worst in people, and peer review is no exception: less established researchers might have to respond to an unprofessional report penned by an especially grouchy reviewer. Even if the review is well-intentioned and raises interesting questions, addressing the comments may require several months of additional experiments and analysis, ballooning project timelines and throwing a wrench into career plans.
Knowing these pitfalls, it’s easy to be leery of peer review as an enterprise. In an age when we can share our science freely and rapidly through preprints and Twitter threads, why peer review at all?
Peer review is an opportunity to improve your science
Despite its frustrations and limitations, peer review is critical to the way in which we as a scientific community come to a common understanding of scientific truth. Ultimately, science can’t be evaluated in a vacuum: a discovery is only truly a scientific advance if you can explain it to your peers in a convincing fashion, and inspire follow-up work that builds on your own. Inconsistent peer reviews, while frustrating, simulate the way your work will be received across a variety of different scientific backgrounds.
Consider a reviewer report as the beginning of a dialogue about your science with someone outside your academic “bubble.” Listen to their concerns with an open mind, and think honestly about collecting new scientific evidence to buttress your conclusions in light of these concerns. If a reviewer has misinterpreted one of your claims, consider revising your explanation to clear up the misunderstanding. If you treat peer review as an opportunity to strengthen your science and improve your communication, you’ll have a stronger publication in the end.
Of course, this is easier said than done. It’s difficult to see the value in a drawn-out peer review process that ends in rejection. The most important thing I’ve learned from my experiences with peer review is to stay positive throughout the process. Critical reviews are not an indictment of you as a person or as a scientist, and even the most accomplished people in your field have faced rejection many times. Take your reviews in stride, and leverage them to craft a more convincing version of your scientific story.
Even though peer review can be frustrating, it serves an important role in advancing the scientific community and in improving our scientific communication skills. If we take the right attitude toward this imperfect, but ultimately valuable part of scientific publishing, we all stand to benefit.
In the next few posts in this series, we will discuss some strategies to pre-empt and effectively respond to reviewer comments, so you will be well equipped to handle the challenges of peer review.
Aditya Limaye is a graduate student in the Willard and Manthiram Labs and a ChemE Communication Fellow.
Blog tags: #peerreview