After a few months working as an associate editor at Nature Photonics, chief editor Oliver Graydon asked Gaia Donati if the role was what she had imagined it to be. She answered that in most aspects it had, with one significant exception: she hadn’t realised that finding referees to assess submitted manuscripts would be such a daunting task. Here, Gaia urges peer reviewers to make things easier by setting up a personal web page outlining their research experience and interests.
Potential reviewers come back to editors with a range of replies: too busy, travelling, on sabbatical – some never answer. An additional challenge appears when trying to sign up postdocs and early-career researchers: how to work out their scientific background and research interests when such information is not available?
From an editor’s perspective, finding referees for research papers is a crucial aspect of the job, and one that comes with a significant responsibility in ensuring a fair and balanced assessment of the authors’ work in the context of a journal’s aims and scope. Here I refer to the traditional peer review process, where anonymous experts express their opinion on the content of a paper, raise questions and suggest changes; it is a scheme with its limitations and weaknesses, and in fact it has been repeatedly challenged over the years – with several alternative systems existing at present.
Besides legitimate endeavours to improve and experiment on the old-school peer review process, the latter is also affected by a growing number of manuscript submissions and an increase in the number of peer-reviewed journals that characterise many research areas. These two factors, in particular, can lead to senior scientists and so-called ‘world experts’ becoming over-burdened with requests to review scientific papers. What about postdocs and early-stage researchers? Not only might they be sitting on fewer committees and therefore be more willing to commit to assessing papers; peer review at its best is fruitful for authors and referees, it stimulates critical thinking and promotes the scientific debate – as such, it should not be missing from a junior researcher’s activities.
Postdocs and early-career scientists are often thorough in their reviews, offering constructive feedback that takes into account the state of the art in a given area. However, trying to determine the specific areas of expertise of junior researchers when browsing through their group’s website often leads to one of three scenarios:
- There is no link to personal web pages of individual group members – besides the principal investigator, who has one that might include a biography and a list of awards;
- The links redirecting to personal web pages generate error messages;
- The links take to web pages that only display contact details and a photo.
Of course, fortuitous exceptions exist.Ulrike Böhm completed her PhD on a novel technique for optical nanoscopy in 2015 at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, and has now moved to the US for her next postdoctoral adventure.
Her personal homepage is neat, easy to navigate and contains information about her academic background, her research experience and her interests. “A homepage is an important tool because it gives you more authenticity and helps to sharpen your research profile early on,” she explains.
Indeed, the personal web page allowed her to introduce herself in a way that matches more closely her personality, whereas she finds a CV or a LinkedIn profile less effective. Interestingly, Böhm told me that every scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry may create a similar personal web page, but she noted that hardly any researcher seems to be taking advantage of this possibility.
I second Böhm’s viewpoint: a homepage expresses much more about a scientist’s research, interests and goals than a profile on networking platforms for academics such as ResearchGate and Academia.edu. A personal website can be an invaluable additional resource, and creating one is not as time-consuming as it might seem: WordPress and Weebly, for example, offer a decent range of free templates with varying degrees of flexibility in terms of page design and ease of access to featured content. And while some people decide to delve into HTML and CSS, others prefer to focus on the end result and can do so thanks to these web-hosting services.
Here is my suggestion to postdoctoral researchers and early-stage academics for their next outbreak of procrastination: whether it is hosted by your institution or provided by independent website management systems, create a homepage with some details about your research interests and activities.
It does not have to feel like a marketing exercise, and it is not about putting yourself on display through exaggerated self-promotion: view it as an opportunity to use your voice to explain what drives you as a scientist. Happy website building!
Gaia Donati is locum associate editor, Nature Photonics. She holds a Master’s degree in physics from Sapienza Università di Roma, Italy, and moved to the UK to carry out her doctoral research in quantum optics. She obtained her PhD in atomic and laser physics from the University of Oxford, and was a freelance science writer after completing her doctoral degree. Her research interests include nonlinear optics, quantum information processing and quantum computing. She occasionally blogs at “A quantum of science” and is on Twitter.