Monday, February 8, 2010
Writing a review???
The other day, I opened up my email, and found a message from an editor at a lower-level, peer reviewed ecology journal. This polite message was address to "Dr. Theo Miss-spelledLastName", and turned out to be a request that I consider reviewing the attached manuscript to evaluate it for publication in their journal, based on provided criteria.
First reaction (worth enjoying):
WOW! This is pretty exciting, I've never gotten such a request before. And it definitely counts as being another little step towards becoming a bonafide scientist.
Peer review is a hugely important part of scientific pursuits; it's what helps us set and assure standards of quality, rigor and academic integrity in our discipline, both in the work of others, and in our own. Reviewers to the best of my knowledge usually remain anonymous, so they are free to provide honest, critical (and hopefully constructive!) opinions without fear of political/career repercussions. In its most idealistic sense, it also helps to free the evaluation of the merit and originality of ideas from being dictated by a limited number of people (publishers, editors), making science more democratic, and hopefully dissuading the rejection of an idea because it is unpopular, instead of actually unsound. (Whether or not this always works out the way it should is certainly a matter of some debate).
Any paper submitted to a journal that goes out for review usually needs at least two reviewers. Without doing any explicit math here, I'm sure you can see that the number of reviewers needed to evaluate all of the papers being submitted to this, and other journals, adds up pretty quickly! Most of this process is handled through a sort of unspoken karmic system - one of our responsibilities as academics that want to have our own papers published someday is to also serve as a reviewer for the work of others. When people do their share, this helps support the important goal of maintaining an effective peer review system. (This is overly rosy and deserves qualifiers; I know that less than ideal things happen, but I don't want to go into that at present).
I'm a little conflicted over this one. I'm excited and honored to be asked (although I'm sure in a few years it'll seem like no big deal), especially as someone must have referred me - which probably means they think I can do a good job. I want to do my karmic share. Then, on the other hand, I'm no expert, I haven't even published yet myself (just one failed attempt), I have a lot yet to learn and a bunch of projects on my plate, and they didn't even get my name right.
Another part of the karmic system is that the not-yet-published manuscripts that you read as a reviewer are held in confidence - in other words, you can't take their ideas before they've published them, or copy their work, or distribute it to other people. I don't know if this is kosher or not, but I did take a brief look through the paper to try to get a sense of how challenging it is prior to making my decision... I think I could do it, although certainly not as well or as thoroughly as someone with more experience and knowledge.
I'm going to sleep on it (again), and will make a decision tomorrow; I don't want to slow down the process if I choose not to review it, as they'll have to locate someone else. Otherwise, I have several weeks. I want to do my share in order to do right by the system, but I also want to do right for the authors of the manuscript and make sure they get a fair, knowledgeable and useful review.