Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Young researchers vs. peer reviewing

Alaa Ibrahim

For many eager young researchers, the first introduction to peer reviewing does not often go very smoothly. Most young researchers (and more than a few established ones) that I have met in the Arab world have blamed this on a ‘bias against Arabs and Muslims’.

This is, in my opinion, inherently untrue and unfounded. I have talked to several editors and peer reviewers and they have all stressed that there is no racial bias – or any other type of bias – involved. Rather, they challenge that the papers are usually of poor quality that is not publishable. With the large increase in the number of excellent manuscripts submitted, the selection process has become more vigorous.

While the peer reviewing process may not be perfect, it is the best option available now for scientists to streamline science and weed out bad or flawed research (whether intentional or unintentional) and has become an internationally accepted standard.

During the Euroscience Open Forum 2012 (ESOF 2012) which opened in Dublin yesterday, Alaa Ibrahim, an astrophysicist from the American University in Cairo, Egypt, gave his advice to young researchers starting their research career on how to handle the peer reviewing process. Here is a summary of his tips:

  1. Understand that the peer reviewing process is an essential part of proper science. It gives credibility to your work and acts as an initial endorsement of your work by the science community.
  2. Start early. You now have an option to be involved in undergraduate research during graduate school. This is useful to give you a feel for the peer review process and to understand and appreciate how it works.
  3. Be part of the research community in your particular discipline. Go to meetings and conferences and get engaged with the latest research taking place. Read papers and see how they are written to get a feel for the quality of published, peer-reviewed work.
  4. Get to know the leading researchers in your field. These are likely to be your editors and reviewers. They are usually experts so don’t be shy to ask them for their advice and even mentorship when you are still starting your research career.
  5. Present your research results at meetings and solicit feedback from senior researchers and peers before you go for publishing. Their advice could help improve your work to make it publishable before you submit (and possibly get refused)
  6. Once you have a good network of contacts among senior researchers in your field, circulate your paper among them for feedback and input before submitting your manuscript for review.
  7. When you are ready to submit your manuscript for publishing, aim for reputable, high impact journals. This is probably the biggest problem facing young researchers in the Arab world. In order to progress in some government-sponsored research institutes, the researchers are asked to publish as many papers as possible with no regards to the quality of the journals they publish in. Many resort to very poorly reviewed Iranian and Pakistani journals that have no impact factor.
  8. Later on when you have a more established career, accept to become a reviewer. This way you can become part of the ongoing process and continue to help refining the quality of science.
  9. Mistakes sometimes happen and they are usually honest mistakes, such as the example of cold fusion or faster than light neutrinos. These results are not reproducible so cannot be published or may be retracted later on. One should really be open to accept that mistakes may happen for many different reasons and be open to judgement and admitting their mistakes.

Ibrahim went on to explain that not everything is rosy with the peer reviewing process. There will sometimes be problems and the researcher must deal with these as they come up. Sometimes, there will be biased reviewers who refuse research due to adversary or a conflict of interest. He gave an example of how Robert Hooke blocked much of Isaac Newton’s work – who only managed to publish his book after Hooke’s death. Sometimes it may be necessary to seek a second opinion.

He also stressed that editors need to be involved in the peer reviewing process rather than being “postmen”. They should be a link between the researcher and the reviewer and explain the reviewers points of view to the researcher.

Finally, Ibrahim wrapped up by suggesting that the peer reviewing process should involve the public as well, through science journalism. The public should be empowered to ask for evidence of science and to understand the vigorous peer reviewing process that research goes through before it is accepted and finally published in reputable journals.


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