The first student steps into the world of science are necessarily bound to the scope and realm of the individual project one has decided to dedicate oneself to. And soon one may feel a direct tie instituted by the project one is involved in to the abstract sphere of science. Along the way you start to get familiar with the intricate details of your own work and the multiple layers of science become more tangible. This may be the moment when either your principal investigator (PI) approaches you or you yourself start to develop an interest in taking part in the meta-level of science beyond your own wet or dry lab work. The time has come to review submitted scientific manuscripts! In the following, I want to give my share of the kaleidoscope of impressions that I have gained throughout my first reviewing experience.
As a student, after several months on my own project, I was eager to dive deeper into the clockworks of science. I wanted to contribute to advance research quality by committing myself to science’s quality self-control instrument, i.e., peer review. Consequently, I asked my PI whether I could join him in reviewing submitted articles for a journal. Fortunately, my PI was supportive of my interest. Sooner rather than later he gave me an article he had been asked to review. No comments, no guidelines - plain paper peppered with data, interpretations and figures. Now it was on me to make up my mind about the quality and coherence of the manuscript at hand. After some uplifting moments owing to the feeling of solemnly undergoing an initiation rite to the scientific community, I had to face the task. And that’s where the ‘no comments and no guidelines’ part kicked in.
To begin with, as I did not know how to go about it at all, I was intimidated by my lack of authority. As a result, I had the simple lurking doubt how I, as a student quite new to research and science, could possibly contribute to the improvement of articles written by established researchers. And along those lines, I wondered how I could advise established researchers how to improve on their experimental and writing work. And this thought came even though I knew that I was guaranteed anonymity by the institution the closed peer review process constitutes to anticipate and counteract hierarchically-inflicted self-constraints, inter alia. But there is no way around a first time experience! So, I told myself “Play up!”, just to find further hampering ideas around the corner.
In addition, the subject was outside of my own research focus so that I was confronted with my own insufficient knowledge of another subfield comprised by the overarching research field I shared. What to do? Reading loads of literature that had been published beforehand in that specific subfield to self-institute some knowledge authority or restrict my reading to the paper in question? That was also the moment I first stumbled across the term I was supposed to be meant by - a ‘peer’. Even though I shared the same research field, I asked myself: “How much of a peer am I? How much time will it take until I will self-confidently consider myself a peer?” Questions that gained further ground given that there were methods I was not familiar with - and to assess interpretations of data generated by a method, it is undoubtedly helpful to know the caveats and interpretation limits associated with a method.
Furthermore, as I was caught-up in all those data specifics, figure and table formalities became an aspect I did not pay attention to, while it is the task demanding the least scientific training. And still, it plays an essential role as figures and tables as well as their respective legends are the key components the drawn conclusions are based upon. So, they better be good! This quality aspiration I now lay stress on is reflected by a more or less common technique of scanning scientific literature consisting in only considering the information given by the figures. However, I only started to attach importance to figure and table quality standards after my first reviewing experience. For example, I came across a figure whose diagrams’ axes were inconsistently logarithmically or linearly scaled, so that direct comparability suffered and distorted the global sense of effect magnitude prima facie. Moreover, some figures needed longer contemplation to understand where to find the figures’ data pointed out in the writing. A problem that easily could have been solved by suggesting to include arrows that highlight the respective data. Such aspects I no longer neglect as they influence the quality of data presentation and ease of reading.
Overall, my first reviewing experience was a dive into the brush that reviewing is - when there is no guidance - and there was no way out with any feeling of reward or satisfaction. Just the feeling of being overwhelmed by the task remained as a resonating reminder. I did learn something but not without the cost of some frustration that appeared to me to fit well. Put differently: Could it be science without some degree of frustration seemingly inextricably bound to any attempt to pursue science? And then I went on learning. By now, I gathered some helpful, but far from comprehensive insights and techniques through hands-on reviewing and scarce feedback regarding the evaluation of a manuscript that I want to hereby share:
I divide my reviewing up into two layers of reading: on the one hand, form-wise and, on the other hand, content-wise.
Figures and tables as well as their respective legends are key and as such should be checked thoroughly in order to provide informative cornerstones that live up to their communication potential of the presented work.
Language should be concise and clear-cut. · Questions regarding the results: Do the data support the drawn conclusions? Do the conclusions fit with the scope of the scientific journal that was chosen for submission? How does the presented work tie in with previous data (published by different researchers)?
Questions regarding the discussion: Are the results put well into perspective in the discussion, also with respect to the pre-existing literature? Are limitations as well as open questions of the study addressed?
I resurfaced after I had been thrown in at the deep end. Unfortunately, many students share this experience with me and the modus operandi of ‘teaching’ reviewing remains learning by doing without any guidance to a relevant extent. That is why the BEM initiative immediately caught my interest.
BEM as a student-run scientific medium aspires to be a platform transforming students’ experiences related to science and change the erratic and frustrating ways of exploring the spaces of science surrounding its crucial interface, i.e., publications, for the better. Because there is a way of learning these essential skills systematically and transparently. Thus, students are equipped with the instruments that allow for a self-confident and structured handling of science from the very beginning and can build on this foundation. A scientific journal of students, by students, for students - what better way to instruct and empower scientific practice from early-on?
Here you can find some resources for more comprehensive guidance regarding as to how to get a better grip on the reviewing process:
1. Annesley TM. Now You Be the Judge. Clin Chem. 2012;58(11):1520-1526. doi:10.1373/clinchem.2012.195529
2. Annesley TM. Writing an Effective Manuscript Review: The 6 “Be’s” to Success. Clin Chem. 2013;59(7):1028-1035. doi:10.1373/clinchem.2013.208280
3. Step by Step Guide to Reviewing a Manuscript | Wiley. Accessed December 30, 2021. https://authorservices.wiley.com/Reviewers/journal-reviewers/how-to-perform-a-peer-review/step-by-step-guide-to-reviewing-a-manuscript.html
4. For Reviewers. PLOS. Accessed December 30, 2021. https://plos.org/resources/for-reviewers/