Writing boost: Being a reviewer

Writing boost: Being a reviewer

I don’t know how you feel … but after a stressful month to prepare for EGU and a month relaxing and getting back to work, it is now time for the last part of tips for writing, submitting, and reviewing. The last two times we have talked about scientific writing and the submission process. Today, I will shed light on reviewing papers and how that can boost your writing.

There are many “firsts” in the life of a scientists: the first paper draft, the first submission, the first published paper, the first review. Reviewing is an important service provided by the scientific community. Getting an invitation to review is exciting! My heart still beats faster every time and it’s hard to suppress my crazy smile: “I am a real scientist!” But wait! … When and why are people becoming reviewers? There are two main ways to get into this “elite” club:

  • You’ve already published one or more papers, then maybe some authors will remember your name and put you on this “list of possible reviewers” they have to provide when submitting a paper.
  • A more likely alternative is that your supervisor or another scientist, who knows you and your work, got the invitation to review a paper and they don’t have time (or are not interested in the topic) and they recommend you as a reviewer instead.

It doesn’t matter how you’ve got the job, but if you’re once in the reviewer database of a journal, the invitations to review will come around more often as you think.

But you don’t need to wait for an invitation of a journal to practice your reviewing skills. Look over your shoulder! There are your colleagues sitting over a paper draft and could benefit from an honest and mindful review. And believe me, you can benefit as well. Build up a network of pre-reviewing where you will review papers of your colleagues before they are submitted and where the colleagues will do the same for you. As discussed in my previous post, the more pre-reviewers tear your manuscript apart, the less the actual reviewers can comment on. And the more reviews you do the better you’ll get in revising your own text.

Let’s say you’ve got an invitation to review a paper. You obviously should read the title and abstract carefully to see if you know the topic well enough. If not, you should decline the invitation, because no one is helped if the reviewer has no clue about the science that is in the paper. But if you are familiar with the topic (and that is in about 99% the case), you should definitely accept, especially when you are in your early years as a scientist. Maybe you have heard about the rule of thumb that you should review at least two papers for every paper that you’ve submitted. This is simple math, since every of your papers is reviewed by two scientists who dedicated their working time to read through the abysses of your article. More importantly, it is good for you to review as much papers as you can get. How does reviewing papers influence your writing?

  • Reviewing a paper is more intense than just reading it. You’ll get a better feeling on how a good paper is composed.
  • You can not only learn through your mistakes but also through the mistakes others have done.

When I accepted my first invitation to review a paper, I felt very excited. But immediately afterwards a feeling of panic came up. Do I have enough expertise? How to do a good review? And what happens when I screw up? Panic seems to be naturally involved in every part of publication: the writing, the submission, and the review. That’s funny, isn’t it?

There are a lot of webpages with advice how to be a good reviewer (e.g., here, here, and here). Besides that, supervisors and colleagues are a valuable source of information, so go and ask them! And if you do, you might even hear a funny anecdote about their first time being a reviewer. Either way it’s worth it. I will just mention the most helpful advice I have got:

  • Be on time

As stated before, reviewing a paper is intense and more time consuming than reading it. You have got a deadline to submit your review and you should not exceed it. Start the review early! I know that it might be hard, but this is not the right time to procrastinate…

Moreover, don’t forget to answer the invitation to review fast. Especially if you decline it because the editor needs to find another reviewer.

  • Be mindful and kind

I can promise, there will be papers that will annoy you but remember, authors are emotionally attached to their text and after a while they just get “paper-blind”. The same happened with you when you submitted your paper. It is important that the reviewers reveal the flaws that they find. When you spot a mistake or when something is unclear or poorly described, don’t be too harsh! My supervisor once told me that especially early career scientist are very critical reviewers, maybe because they are panicking and want to be the best reviewer as possible. However, the best reviewer is not the most critical one. Read the post about being the stereotypical reviewer #2.

If you ever find yourself to be angry about the paper, then take a deep breath and try to smile! Try to see it positive: Nobody is perfect and every mistake you spot in another paper you are less likely to do in your own papers, right?

  • The editor is your friend

If you have any questions or concerns that you cannot find an answer to, the editor will help. When you submit your review you have a field where you put the specific comments to the authors, and a field where you should explain your recommendation regarding the paper to the editor. Be honest here. If there was something that troubled you or if for example a certain section of the paper was outside your expertise, explain it. The editor can make the best decision if he can understand the reasoning behind your recommendation.

Our friends at PhD comics have their own special tips on reviewing

A final remark on being an anonymous reviewer or not. Most of the papers that I have read are reviewed by anonymous reviewers. On the other hand, some of my friends, who are Geologists, told me that most of their reviewers show their name. There are some pros and cons to both sides. If you put down your name it is more likely that you write your comments in a kinder way. And isn’t it more honest, since you can see the name of the authors? However, we are all human beings and our feelings might be hurt by a review, even if it is a kind and valid one. Can you be sure that you won’t be biased if you have to review a paper authored by your last reviewer? In the beginning of your career you might decide to be anonymous because you are new to the review process and you are slightly afraid. That is absolutely fine and it will probably take some years and some reviews before you feel confident. But I think after a few years you should stick to your decision of either being anonymous or not. Don’t decide on a case-by-case basis that depends on the authors or the quality of the paper or because you have other “strategical” thoughts.

Enough said, now turn around, ask your college for a paper that you can “pre-review” and have fun reviewing!

This guest post was contributed by a scientist, student or a professional in the Earth, planetary or space sciences. The EGU blogs welcome guest contributions, so if you've got a great idea for a post or fancy trying your hand at science communication, please contact the blog editor or the EGU Communications Officer to pitch your idea.

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