This guest blog comes from James Houghton, Associate Publishing Manager, Nature Masterclasses.
This year’s Peer Review Week ― a global event celebrating the essential of role peer in maintaining scientific quality ― kicked off on 10 September. Diversity and inclusion in peer review is this year’s theme. Peer review is an essential part of the scientific publishing process. It ensures a certain level of scientific rigour and accuracy in published work by giving authors critical feedback to improve their papers. It is an activity academics must find time for among all the other demands they juggle. The burden of peer review is carried unevenly with some researchers doing more than their fair share and others not being offered (or not taking) the chance to participate.
Although it is known that women are underrepresented in STEM fields, the proportion of women contributing as peer reviewers is smaller than their representation in science overall. Female researchers are also less likely to accept invitations to review than their male counterparts. Early career researchers, regardless of their gender, can also be subjected to seniority bias, reducing their opportunities to contribute to peer review. These biases threaten the supply of reviewers needed to cope with the ever-increasing volume of scientific output. In addition, by being unwilling (owing to a lack of confidence, for instance) or unable to peer review, researchers can miss out on a valuable experience that could help them improve their writing skills, provide insights into emerging research topics or the latest advances in a field, and raise their profile as a researcher.
The biases that lead to underrepresentation of certain groups in the peer review process are often unconscious. Therefore, one way to broaden participation is to encourage editors and authors to be mindful of underrepresented groups when considering their choices of referees or recommending peer reviewers to assess their papers. Another approach is to improve access to training. Some researchers might have the chance to help their supervisors to produce peer-review reports early in their career, but this option might not be available to every researcher. Formal training on how to produce a useful referee report can improve researchers’ confidence to participate in the review process and the quality of their reports, and can help widen representation. However, such training is rare, and when given the opportunity to review, researchers without training are more likely to return reports that do not meet editors’ expectations, which can decrease the likelihood of them being asked to review in the future.
At Nature Masterclasses we have developed a freely available online course that provides an overview of the peer review process and offers practical tips for how to be a great reviewer through video interviews, informative posts and interactive exercises. In our course, Nature Research editors and renowned scientists explain the importance of peer review and share their insights and experience on what editors expect from a good peer review report. They also advise on how to review an article and how to write and structure an excellent report. The course also covers the ethics of peer review and new variations and innovations to improve the process. We hope that this resource will help level the playing field and ensure equal opportunities for researchers to peer review, independent of their gender, seniority, access to resources and geographical location.
Better training for peer reviewers will improve researchers’ confidence in their ability to provide an informative assessment and empower them to say “yes” when invited to review. High-quality reviews from trained researchers also benefit the academic community as a whole, delivering better scrutiny of submitted papers, informing editors in their decision-making process and helping authors to improve their publications.