Rombald green texture

How to encourage early career researchers to engage with peer review

A case study from the International Journal of Prisoner Health

17th September 2021

Morag MacDonald and David Kane
Birmingham City University, UK 
Editors of the International Journal of Prisoner Health

It is universally accepted that the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted on almost every aspect of life. The ways in which we live and work have been subject to seismic changes including long spells working exclusively from home and communicating via technology rather than face-to-face. Many have had to deal with the extremes of the pandemic including serious illness and even the death of relatives and friends. In these circumstances, it is necessary to place our everyday work concerns into context and the subject matter of these reflections pales into insignificance when viewed alongside the existential damage caused by the pandemic. However, as we edge tentatively towards a return to ‘normal,’ our focus returns to the quotidian: in this case, the perennial problem of getting manuscripts reviewed.

One of the bugbears of our role as journal editors of the International Journal of Prisoner Health is the difficulties encountered when attempting to process papers through the review system in a timely and satisfactory manner. These difficulties often centre upon one aspect of the process; persuading referees to review papers. In reality, this has been an on-going problem and cannot be attributed solely to the pandemic. However, the struggles of the last 18 months have amplified existing difficulties, with many of our trusted reviewers declining to review citing lack of time to do so (many of our reviewers are active health professionals and practitioners). This, of course, is understandable and authors have generally been accepting of additional delays in returning reviews. However, it is also evident that pressure on academics to publish has had a ‘knock-on’ effect on the number of papers submitted for review, meaning that existing reviewers are now limiting the numbers of manuscripts they agree to referee. The high number of ‘declines’ is a depressing reality.

Our solution has been to tap into a new generation of reviewers: early career researchers (ECRs). At Birmingham City University, we have devised a workshop for ECRs that introduces them to the process of reviewing for journals. While the motives for this could be viewed as self-serving i.e. we would like them to review for our journal, we hope that the workshop is broader in scope. We were conscious that ECRs should be introduced to the idea that reviewing for journals is an essential part of engaging with academia and offers opportunities to keep abreast of disciplinary developments, become more familiar with the practice of writing journal papers and provides an introduction to the leading scholars in the field. What’s more, in our experience, enthusiasm and commitment are scarce commodities and journal editors are quick to offer opportunities to individuals who demonstrate such qualities – career development beckons.     

These benefits are emphasised in our workshops by our Senior Commissioning Editor at Emerald Publishing, who lends a publisher’s perspective to the review process. This contribution focuses on the potential pitfalls of reviewing including, for example, the need to ensure that a necessary amount of time is devoted to the review and that the reviewer is suitable to referee a given manuscript. We also aim to introduce ECRs to the mechanics of submission and selection of reviewers and the various different models of peer review i.e. single-blind, double-blind, triple-blind and open peer review. We also feature contributions from other colleagues in the University who are journal editors to illustrate that the review process can differ from journal to journal. A key element of the workshop is inviting participants to ‘review’ and discuss an article that we email to them in advance of their attendance. This allows participants an opportunity to discuss the various aspects of the process with both editors and the publisher.

One of the key fears expressed by new reviewers is a feeling that they are insufficiently experienced to review a manuscript. We are able to reassure them by giving practical examples of what a good review looks like and explaining that journal editors are on hand should they have any queries or concerns. In our experience, new reviewers often provide extremely comprehensive feedback for authors (often far surpassing the efforts of experienced academics!) and simply need encouragement and reassurance.

Feedback from the workshops conducted to date has been positive although I should stress that we have not canvassed our previous participants about their reviewer experiences post workshop (note to self: we should do this – nice little research project). Our next workshop is already pencilled in for early 2022 and we look forward to engaging with our new participants.

While we recognise that this is a modest attempt to encourage ECRs into the world of reviewing, we feel it is important to instil the idea that reviewing is part and parcel of academic life and should be viewed as an opportunity rather than a chore; as something to be accepted and embraced rather than declined.