Manuscript peer reviewing is at the heart of the scientific system, but it seems that these duties are often not properly (if at all) recognized by universities, funding agencies or even the rest of the scientific community. This is the main message of the September Editorial in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, ‘The Unsung Reviewer’ (16, 899; 2009) The Editorial notes:
“Scientists wear many hats these days. They prepare and teach classes and sit on various committees. Then there are the multiple activities directly related to their research, including grant writing, mentoring students and postdocs, attending conferences, writing papers and reviewing manuscripts. All these duties can take a considerable amount of time and effort and most are recognized as worthy contributions by funding agencies, universities and research institutions when evaluating a scientist’s performance. On the other hand, peer reviewing papers seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield (”I get no respect!“) of a scientist’s duties.”
A new report by the Science for Policy project of the US Bipartisan Policy Center notes that peer-review is essential for the scientific system. Journals such as NSMB (and the other Nature journals) would not agree from their own perspective with one of the report’s conclusions, that “peer-review is no longer assumed to be a professional obligation”. As the Editorial points out, our journals have very broad reviewer pools (running into many tens of thousands for the heavily oversubscribed weekly title Nature, for example), and the editors know and very much appreciate the work that these reviewers put into improving submitted manuscripts.
The SPP report also identifies a need to increase the number of scientists who participate in peer review for federal agencies, making suggestions such as listing such service on grant applications or even making it a requirement for funding. In addition, it urges journals to run a quality system, for example by providing the peer-reviewers with feedback (which the Nature journals do, and which is appreciated by our reviewers – for one reason, because a reviewer can see his or her report in the context of those of the other reviwers of the manuscript). The NSMB Editorial concludes:
“Peer review is often compared to jury duty, a chore that one has to do once in a while as a service to the community. But reviewing manuscripts can be enjoyable and useful at any career stage. True, it takes time, but as one reviewer aptly put it: “I still learn do’s and don’ts from reviewing papers, as well as just getting useful information, so it is time spent pretty well.” It is also true that one does not get much open recognition from it, and there are limitations on what the journals can do without compromising the reviewers’ anonymity. We have in the past publicly acknowledged our reviewers at the end of the year, and will do so again this year. The SPP report stresses that it is important to stress that “peer reviewing manuscripts should be an expected and appreciated aspect of a scientist’s career.” Of course, we do have a vested interest in this, but we firmly believe that it’s important to cultivate a vibrant ‘reviewer culture’."