Opinion: Postdocs as Competent Peer Reviewers
Opinion: Postdocs as Competent Peer Reviewers

Opinion: Postdocs as Competent Peer Reviewers

Constructively critiquing the scientific literature should be an essential part of the postdoctoral experience, and early career researchers have shown that they are up to the task.

Gary McDowell and Rebeccah S. Lijek
Jan 22, 2020

ABOVE: © ISTOCK.COM, NATTAKORN MANEERAT

More attention to training and ethical treatment for early career researchers in peer review is long overdue, as highlighted by James L. Sherley ("Opinion: Exorcising Ghostwriting from Peer Review") in response to our recent eLife paper documenting trainees’ contributions to journal article peer review, a practice we call co-review. His piece also raises an important issue about when, and how, an academic can be “trusted” to review a scientific manuscript that has been submitted for publication.

Sherley argues that the place for peer review training is in classes and journal clubs and not through the actual review of articles. We agree that a fundamental outcome of graduate training should be the ability to competently review another academic’s work, and that, as we argue in our eLife paper and a recently posted MetaArXiv preprint, all graduate training should include Peer Review 101.  Sherley is also correct that a peer review novice should undergo thorough training before becoming solely responsible for reviewing an article. That critical training, we argue, could include co-review—when an invited reviewer mentors a member of her lab through the actual peer review process. This type of apprenticeship, when done properly and with transparency, is valuable both for the trainees and for the scientific community as a whole.

See “Opinion: Exorcising Ghostwriting from Peer Review

Sherley’s claim that early career researchers’ involvement can lead to “poorly informed, deficient reviews” that can affect academic careers places the blame incorrectly on early career researchers. Deficient reviews can affect academic careers, but this is not the fault of early career researchers. Co-review should not result in low-quality reviews if the mentor is fulfilling their responsibilities. The invited reviewer is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the feedback is well informed and constructive. Rather than calling on lab heads to stop involving their trainees in peer review, we should call on them to live up to their role as advisor and teach their mentees how to write solid, actionable reviews. 

We must also consider the evidence that actually points to the great competence of early career researchers in performing peer review. Studies in medical journals have consistently shown that early career reviewers write higher quality reviews than those with more years of experience (see here, here, here and here). Opinions that fail to take these data into account belie a disappointing gatekeeping mentality about who participates in scholarship and when. 

Sherley’s stance—a commonly held view within the scientific community, especially among senior researchers—is a symptom of a larger misconception in academia: that certain academic activities are beyond the abilities of anyone without a faculty position. Faculty do not become expert reviewers overnight, nor is there a test of peer review competency as part of the faculty appointment process. Those who think postdocs—scientists holding a doctorate—are not competent to evaluate a scientific manuscript, often the work of another postdoc, reveal their poor opinion of the standard of graduate education. We should not assume that postdocs are incapable of constructive peer review while all faculty can rigorously execute this duty because it ignores the reality that scientific training and ability accrues over time, rather than at any particular rung in the academic ladder.

See “Trainees Often Ghostwrite PIs’ Peer Reviews: Survey

All ages and career stages have something to contribute to the research enterprise, a point being made loudly in the debate about whether senior academics should be coerced into retirement. We apply the same logic to those early in their careers, and so urge a number of adjustments to how peer review is handled to better facilitate the inclusion of all scientists. Early career researchers are valuable members of the peer review process, and their mentored participation is good for both peer review training and publishing outcomes. 

Gary McDowell is a consultant with Lightoller, LLC, and Rebeccah Lijek is a molecular biologist at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts. McDowell and Lijek were founding members of Future of Research, a nonprofit created by and for early career researchers. Follow McDowell on Twitter @BiophysicalFrog or email him at info@lightoller.org. Follow Lijek on Twitter @DrLijek or email her at rlijek@mtholyoke.edu.