This week the ReviewerCredits team sat down with Dr Neeraj Kumar Sethiya, one of our newest national ambassadors, to chat about peer review. We always learn a lot when talking to our ambassadors; our chat with Dr Sethiya was no exception!
Dr Sethiya is an Associate Professor at DIT University in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India. He is an expert in Herbal Drug Technology, especially Phytochemistry. His research focuses on modeling and on the analysis of herbal drug pharmacology.
We started out by asking Dr Sethiya about his experiences of journal peer review.
“These days I end up doing more than 50 peer reviews a month for various journals and a number of publishers. I never really get any reward, other than sometimes access to free or discounted APCs (article processing charges for open access journals). Journals tend to forget us academics, the ones who do all the work for them peer reviewing papers. I mean, sometimes we get a certificate or a thank you email, but that’s about it”
“The great thing about ReviewerCredits is that this site allows rewards to go to peer reviewers for the hard work they do. I love it! It’s a great site”
“I don’t think it’s a very good idea for journals to reward peer reviewers directly (for example, with APC waivers) because this encourages the development of corrupt rings of reviewers: people who feel that they should accept a paper in order to get the reward”
“The other issue I wanted to raise is the issue of which journals should I be performing peer review for: Which journals should I prioritize? I get many peer review requests and I’m never sure which one to do first. Better journals? Papers more in my subject area? It seems like peer review requests are always in my email”.
Dr Sethiya was also keen to note that: “For many people, peer review is a tough process: You get out the other end with your paper accepted, or not, feeling like you’ve been through the wringer. It should not be like this: Peer review should be a positive, career-enhancing process”.
Here are some other questions researchers often ask us at ReviewerCredits
How can I select peer reviewers for my research papers
One of the most common questions we are asked during our academic paper writing and publishing workshops is ‘how can I select good reviewers when submitting my next research paper’?
Anyone submitting a research article to an academic journal will be familiar with standard online systems through which manuscripts, figures, and table files are uploaded. Most online submission and manuscript handling systems include options for authors to both add ‘preferred’ and ‘non-preferred’ reviewer suggestions for their papers. Or at least they used to: It’s worth at this point bearing in mind that many of these systems have now removed the ‘preferred’ reviewer option because authors were abusing this option. Putting the names of their friends in, even making up email addresses in order to control the process. Now, these days, the main way in which authors are able to make suggestions for reviewers is via their covering letters: the document that is uploaded alongside all others when making an initial submission.
It’s clear that the best way to ensure your articles have the highest possible chance of eventual acceptance is to suggest reviewers to editors (via your covering letter) whom you know are likely to act favorably towards your work. Editors are usually very happy to receive credible reviewer suggestions from authors as they are most often busy academics, working on their own research as well as managing reviews and making decisions for journals.
How can you do this? How can you ensure that you make good suggestions for peer reviewers when submitting your manuscripts?
You need to develop (and I’m sure you already have) what’s called an ‘international mentorship network’. This is done by reaching out to people, writing to other researchers and talking to them at conferences about your work. It’s a very good idea to send emails about research projects you are working on to colleagues around the world in order to solicit comments and remarks in return. Why not send emails containing your titles and abstracts to other colleagues when getting close to submission and ask for feedback. Sure, some people will not reply but most will: this way you will develop relationships around the world, make colleagues aware of your work, and build up that network of people who know about you. People who know about your work.
Favorable comments will come back on your work and international colleagues will also appreciate the chance to make contact with you. Such dialogues are never one-sided: other workers around the world will also appreciate the chance to develop a relationship with you! These are the people who you can then suggest to journal editors as possible peer reviewers and you know that they are likely to act favorably.
Of course, you can never be sure that a journal editor will use the suggestions you make. What happens if you receive unfavorable comments? What happens if your work is sent to a colleague who then acts negatively as a reviewer? This is human nature, of course: when asked to review the work of others, most people tend to think ‘how can I find problems with this paper?’ rather than ‘how can I help these authors to improve their study so that it can be accepted for publication?’ Peer review training is a key area: our courses and online materials can help. Young researchers, especially, are very often trained in how to perform this important service to the academic community. Being constructive about the work of others, commenting in a constructive and positive way, is a key transferable skill: providing constructive feedback on your colleagues’ work will be greatly appreciated whatever your future career path.
The possibility that you’ll receive negative comments on your work is also a fact of academic life. There will always be people who will respond in this way: perhaps because of conflicts of interest, competition, or just plain personality agreements. This happens all the time in academia. For these reasons, be careful to ‘deselect’ your ‘non-preferred’ reviewers when making your submissions; list people in this section of the submission system who are not likely to act favorably towards your work. Editors pay attention to these selections and, indeed, many journals specifically tell their teams not to use these selections. Online submissions systems actively block editors from sending papers to colleagues who have been ‘deselected’ in this way. These options are present within journal submission systems for good reason and, actually, authors do have a good deal of control over the process of who and who does not work on their articles.
Sadly, many authors are unaware of how these ‘backend’ systems work and consequently miss the huge opportunity they afford. Covering letters, in particular, are a very important part of this process, as we have discussed. Please make sure that your covering letters are eye-catching: these need to tell editors: (1) why your work is important and interesting; (2) what is the key take-home message; (3) why you have chosen this particular journal for your submission (editors are very interested in hearing this), and; (4) who are your suggestions for suitable peer reviewers (put down four or five colleagues, including their addresses and emails). Editors will greatly appreciate it.
What do the different decisions from journals mean?
We’ve all been in this position as academic authors: Receiving comments back from a journal editor on a manuscript we submitted some weeks, even months, earlier. What to do next? What do the comments that come back from peer reviewers via journal editors actually mean? Perhaps most importantly: How to respond? What are the key issues to keep in mind?
It’s first important to note that when a paper gets submitted to a journal, the first process that takes place is the so-called ‘editorial triage’. It’s the same as when someone gets hit by a bus; they are then rushed to the emergency room at hospital and an initial decision is made about what to do: should they go for an operation or to see another specialist doctor. It’s the same with peer review: an editor makes an initial ‘triage’ decision about papers – should they be sent for peer review or just rejected outright – usually on the basis of the title and the abstract. This is why you should put just as much effort into the title and abstract of your papers as the rest of the paper, as we have discussed in other articles in this series.
Once reviewed, however, a paper will come back from a journal with one of four decisions: accept, minor revisions, major revisions, or reject. The first and last of these outcomes are rare following an initial round review because of ‘editorial triage’: if an editor was going to reject, he or she would likely have done this before sending your paper out for peer review. At the same time, peer reviewers are people too and as such will be looking for issues with your work (rather than thinking ‘how can I help these authors to get their work published’): they will almost certainly request revisions and thus outright acceptance after first peer review is also very unusual.
In other words: expect to be asked to make changes to your paper.
When you do get comments back from a journal (Reviewer 1, Reviewer 2, etc), the most important thing to do is show the editor you are taking this process seriously. Create a response document (we can give you a template) that (1) has a short summary at the top describing all the changes you made to your paper, and (2) inter-leaves your comments underneath each of the proposed reviewer comments. People usually use a different color or font when they do this. Make sure to address all of the comments, even the really small ones (spelling mistakes, formatting issues) because this will help to show you are taking the process seriously. Be polite, address all comments to the editor and use phrases like ‘great comment’, ‘thanks for this really helpful comment’, and ‘thanks for the time you spent working on our paper’. This approach means that when your peer reviewer sees your comments and reads your responses, their view is more likely to be positive: they will feel better and more favorable towards your article and are more likely to eventually hit ‘accept’.
Take a careful look at the wording in your email back from the editor. A response requiring ‘minor revisions’ means that your article, comments and responses to reviews will likely not be going back out again to the same initial peer reviewers, while a response of ‘major revisions’ almost certainly will be. The latter means that substantial changes are required to your article, or one (or both) of the reviewers have identified serious issues that need to be addressed: the editor will want to check back with the reviewers to ensure that the changes asked for have been made, or at least addressed in a convincing fashion. This key difference in the form of comments is well worth keeping in mind when working on your responses.
Usually an editor will have asked four or more colleagues to act as peer reviewers for your paper and then acted when two or three sets of comments have come back. Editors do this in order to speed up the process of peer review. Two sets back that agree with one another (both asking for minor changes, for example) would be enough for an editor to act, while two sets that disagree (one reviewer finds the paper to be good, while the other asks for large-scale changes) would necessitate a third set of comments. One reason your paper might have been delayed with a journal and so you have not heard back for a while might be due to conflict between peer reviewers. Editors usually do their best to speed up the peer review process; you can always write and ask about delays, but do it in a positive way and make suggestions for additional colleagues who might be suitable to act as reviewers. We have templates we can share with you to help you write these kinds of emails.
What about comments you don’t agree with?
Very often peer review comments (or editorial comments) will come back about your work that you simply don’t agree with, or think are just plain incorrect. In these cases, take a step back: wait for a few days and then carefully construct a response that is measured and logical. Why do you disagree? What is it about the comments that you don’t agree with in particular? If you can back up your statements with references, data, remain polite, and address your concerns to the editor you are likely to win the argument and convince the journal that your paper can proceed without the need to make this particular change.
Your editor will have assessed the comments that come back from the peer reviewers and made a decision as to which are the most important for you to address. Take another careful look at the email letter that has come back from the journal as often editors will write which comments, or parts of comments, they feel are more important for you to address and which are less so. If they did not, and you feel there is conflict over some comments made by the peer reviewers, you can always write and ask: editors appreciate clear and open communication from authors. Why not email? ‘Thank you for the detailed and extensive comments on our paper. We wanted to know which of the comments would be most important for us to address in our revisions’. Or: ‘We found some of the reviewer’s comments to be unnecessary (for these detailed reasons), do you feel that we really need to make these changes? We would appreciate your insights to this issue before we start to work on our revised manuscript’.
We are all busy, working academic researchers. Keep in mind that editors at most journals (almost all, apart from the very top tier, like Nature and Science) are also working academics, managing their own research and teams. Everyone appreciates open and honest communication: there is no reason to not write to editors to ask about decisions and to ask for more information, when necessary. Often, decisions can be changed and even rejection from a particular journal does not mean the end of the road. Why not ask the editor: ‘even though our paper has been rejected this time, if we are able to improve it and fully incorporate all of the changes requested by the reviewers, would you consider a resubmission?’ Often, again, their answer will be: ‘yes’.