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February 17, 2007

What makes a good (peer) reviewer?

The peer review process is widely criticized for its failings, and many of them are legitimate complaints. But, to paraphrase Churchill, No one pretends that peer review is perfect or all-wise. In fact, peer review is the worst of all systems, except for all the others. Still, peer review is itself only occasionally studied. So, that makes the work of two medical researchers all the more interesting. Callaham and Tercier studied about 3000 reviews of about 1500 manuscripts by about 300 reviewers over a four-year period, and the corresponding quality scores given these reviews by editors.

Our study confirms that there are no easily identifiable types of formal training or experience that predict reviewer performance. Skill in scientific peer review may be as ill defined and hard to impart as is “common sense.” Without a better understanding of those skills, it seems unlikely journals and editors will be successful in systematically improving their selection of reviewers. This inability to predict performance makes it imperative that all but the smallest journals implement routine review ratings systems to routinely monitor the quality of their reviews (and thus the quality of the science they publish).

The other choice results of their study include a consistent negative correlation between the quality of the review and the number of years of experience. That is, younger reviewers write better reviews. To anyone in academia, this should be a truism for obvious reasons. Ironically, service on an Institutional Review Board (IRB; permission from such a board is required to conduct experiments with human subjects) consistently correlated with lower-quality reviews. The caveat here, of course, is that both these and the other factors were only slightly significant.

I've been reviewing for a variety of journals and conferences (across Computer Science, Physics, Biology and Political Science) for a number of years now, and I still find myself trying to write thoughtful, and sometimes lengthy, reviews. I think this is because I honestly believe in the system of peer review, and always appreciate thoughtful reviews myself. Over the years, I've changed some things about how I review papers. I often start earlier now, write a first draft of the review, and then put it down for several days. This lets my thoughts settle on the important points of the paper, rather than on the details that jump out initially. If the paper is good, I try to make small constructive suggestions. If the paper isn't so good, I try to point out the positive aspects, and couch my criticism on firm scientific grounds. In both, I try to see the large context that the results fit into. For some manuscripts, these things are harder than others, particularly if the work seems to have been done hastily, the methodology suspect or poorly described, the conclusions overly broad, etc. My hope is that, once I have a more time-consuming position, I'll have developed some tricks and habits that let me continue to be thoughtful in my reviews, but able to spend less time doing them.

Callaham and Tercier, "The Relationship of Previous Training and Experience of Journal Peer Reviewers to Subsequent Review Quality." PLoS Medicine 4(1): e40 (2007).

Tip to Ars Technica, which has its own take on the study.


posted February 17, 2007 04:47 PM in Simply Academic | permalink