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How to involve early career researchers in peer review & why

17th September 2021

Axel Kaehne
Medical School, Edge Hill University, UK
Editor of Journal of Integrated Care

Joanne Inman
Edge Hill University and Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, UK

Associate Editor of Journal of Integrated Care Journal editors know that getting their academic colleagues to peer review submissions to journals is one of the most difficult tasks they face. Every editor is delighted as the number of submissions to their journal increases, but also knows in the back of their head that this means trouble. At our journal, the Journal of Integrated Care, we have more than doubled the number of submissions within the last two years. That is something to celebrate but it has also put enormous strain on the editors to ensure that these submissions are peer reviewed in a timely and effective manner. Editors normally draw on their own networks of academic colleagues and previous authors to request peer reviews. When our number of submissions increased by one hundred percent, we knew we had to face the music, since no one doubles their networks at the same rate within a year or two.

There is of course a largely untapped resource for peer reviews, early career researchers (ECRs). The question is whether or not they have the ability and the skills to do this and how to reach out to them if you think they do.

Reviewing a paper for a journal is a bit of an art. There have been countless studies investigating the potential bias of peer reviewers and the discussion about the merits and disadvantages of peer reviewing will undoubtedly continue. However, there are few who question the central importance of peer review as a key mechanism to quality assure, scrutinise and validate academic knowledge. Peer review remains a pillar in the way we produce, verify and, ultimately, create scientific knowledge.

This means that effective peer review depends on exactly those qualifiers, knowledge and skills. Do ECRs have sufficient amounts of both to be part of this knowledge production process? Our answer to this question would be an enthusiastic ‘yes’ albeit with certain caveats. The key question is how to deal with the obvious limitations of peer review by ECRs to allow us to benefit from this untapped resource.

The knowledge issue

Let’s deal with the knowledge issue first. It is probably fair to say that ECRs are still developing their take on the field in which they work. Knowledge builds up accumulatively over years. Reading papers and getting to know about new exciting projects is a good way to widen your horizon as an ECR. So, the benefit for the ECR of reading and reviewing papers for journals is clear. But can they also arrive at a fair and impartial validation of the contribution a paper makes to knowledge? Much depends here on a careful calibration of the knowledge and expertise an ECR has with the task at hand.

It is incumbent on the journal editor to match the existing expertise of the ECR with the papers requiring review. An obvious first step is to look at the papers the ECR produced themselves. A careful reading of those, and potentially a quick TEAMS or Zoom call with the ECR discussing their research background is often invaluable to making the right decision in this respect. In our experience, ECRs are in fact often at the very forefront of innovative and exciting new perspectives in science, making up for some potential knowledge gaps in the academic field.

The skills challenge

But what about the skills needed to peer review a paper? There is a standardised and informal part of this to each peer review. The standardised part is neatly captured in the various guidelines for peer review. They list the things every peer reviewer needs to do (or cover) in order to provide a good peer review. ECRs are capable to learning the ropes of peer review through guidance just like anybody else. Yet there is also the informal skill, the thing that makes peer review a bit of an art.

Borrowing from Michael Polanyi, we may even call it the ‘tacit knowledge’ of the practice of critiquing other people’s publications. It is something that builds up over time and requires feedback, something that we, at the Journal of Integrated Care, give regularly to our peer reviewers. A good mechanism to improve the awareness of ECRs about what constitutes a good peer review may be to provide examples of excellent past peer reviews. Anonymised copies of other peer reviews may give unique insights into how to do it. Also, Emerald Publishing asks editors every year to identify outstanding peer reviewers and this has been a useful tool for us at the journal to think about what constitutes a good peer review and to make sure our ECRs know about this.

Last, but not least, it is about providing effective feedback to peer reviewers for their review. All editors check peer reviews for fairness and appropriateness, and, at our journal we ensure that we also give some feedback to those who peer review papers for the first time. In our experience ECRs (and other first time reviewers) are not just grateful for this input but also incredibly keen to learn.

So, where does that leave ECRs in the peer review process? At the Journal of Integrated Care we believe that ECRs offer an enormous amount of knowledge and expertise, which the journal has used to improve our peer review capacity and the breadths and scope of our peer review community. Seeing the peer review process as an integral part of the academic journey made us understand that ECRs have a vital role to play in the production and verification of scientific knowledge to which peer review makes such an important contribution.