What is the current role of Early Career Researchers in Peer Review?

Peer review is viewed as central to the evaluation of research, and in the case of peer review of manuscripts for journal publication, an activity that is seen as part of the service of a researcher.

Graduate students, as those training in how to carry out research, should therefore clearly be participating in, and receiving training in, constructive peer review. Postdocs are researchers in a position of mentored independence – working on their own projects and research plans, and learning how to manage a research group from an independent principal investigator. As such, postdocs are already intellectually capable of being fully involved in the peer review process.

But, how involved are these early career researchers (ECRs) in journal peer review?

A recent survey in eLife indicated that 92% of those surveyed had undertaken reviewing activities. But more than half, and 37% of graduate students, had done so without the assistance of their advisor.

This statistic was found to be surprising at the ASAPbio Peer Review meeting by a number of senior researchers in attendance. It was, however, less surprising to the early career researchers in the room. A quick informal survey suggested that every single one of us had “ghostwritten” a peer review report: that is, we had carried out peer review of a manuscript, written a report, and submitted it to our supervisor, who had submitted the report (or some version of it) under their own name.

But the reasons can vary. For some, it was that the journal was not permissive. This is somewhat in line with the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) Ethical Guidelines

for Peer Reviewers, which states that, “Supervisors who wish to involve their students or junior researchers in peer review must request permission from the editor and abide by the editor’s decision.”

For others, it is just “what is done”, or, more likely, the experience that the supervisor had.

Is it really a problem if the names of graduate students and postdocs are not actually entered as coreviewers?

On the face of it, it may not seem a problem; after all, who sees the names?

The answer is: the journal editors. Currently there is a desire to increase the number of peer reviewers in the system, but

Not enough reviewers: The Global Burden of Journal Peer Review in the Biomedical Literature: Strong Imbalance in the Collective Enterprise

Also, ultimately, it is plagiarism to submit someone else’s work under your name.