Peer review takes practice. Few scholars ever receive formal training on how to vet the work of others, so for the most part becoming a proficient peer reviewer is all about reviewing papers at different journals to learn from their workflows and pick up on editor cues, as well as learning from reading reviews of your own work to see which were helpful and which were not. There’s little way around it - growing as a peer reviewer requires spending many hours reviewing papers in your field.
Medical statistician Jonas Ranstam knows this firsthand. A recent STAT article highlights that just between October 1, 2015 and September 17, 2016 Ranstam has reviewed 661 papers across 16 scientific fields. In recognition of his commitment to peer review, Publons recently selected Ranstam as the recipient of the new Sentinels of Science “world’s most prolific peer reviewer” award. So when we decided to do a blog post on lessons learned from peer reviewing over the years we knew we had to reach out to Ranstam and we’re so appreciative of him taking the time to do an interview. In the Q&A below he shares how his approach to peer review has changed over the years, his thoughts on the biggest challenges in the current peer review model, and suggestions for reviewer training.
How has your approach to peer reviewing changed over time? Do you still follow the same process when you review a manuscript that you once did - why or why not?
JR: I believe that I have changed my reviewing approach considerably over the years. This has probably been a continuous process related to the personal development that frequent reviewing leads to. When I started reviewing in the early 1990’s, I had published several papers myself, but I did not have much insight into reviewing. I did my best, but trying to remember, I think I had a much more formalistic and superficial approach than I have now. My current approach is hopefully more perceptive, based on the two keywords: transparency and consistency.
Do you think journals should put more emphasis on peer reviewer training? How can journals help scholars at any stage in their career become better peer reviewers?
JR: Yes, I do, but I do not know how this can be achieved. Many journals try to help reviewers by publishing editorials, presenting well-written reviewing instructions, and using web systems for a more structured registering of review comments, but I am not sure that this is very useful. Publications and instructions are not always read or complied with, and systems for structuring review comments can be useful for some manuscripts but are usually less suited for others.
Organizing reviewing seminars at major international conferences could perhaps be an alternative possibility to help scholars become better reviewers.
What stands out to you about the best journals for which you’ve reviewed? What did they do differently from other publications?
JR: The rigor and the seriousness of the overall editorial procedure stands out clearly, as well as the quality of the manuscripts that are sent to reviewing. Requesting reviewing of too poor manuscripts is indicative of inexperienced editors and not a rational use of scarce resources.
What do you think are the biggest challenges in the current peer review model? What, if anything, would you change?
JR: There are, in my opinion, two major challenges. One is the number of submitted manuscripts, which increases faster than the number of available reviewers, and another one is the increasing methodological specialization and complexity of the manuscripts, which reduces the availability of competent reviewers even further.
If it had been possible, I would have made reviewing a more integrated and natural part of the day-to-day activities of active researchers.
JR: I find reviewing rewarding in itself. It is an excellent way to get insights into the current research and to keep up with methodological developments. It is also personally developing with regard to the understanding of, and ability to formulate and explain, general inferential problems. In addition, being asked to review a scientific manuscript is a sign of being accepted as an international expert. Such incentives should go a long way.
Do you have any particular advice for researchers in terms of assessing their own reviewer behavior? What can early career researchers do to learn how to peer review and how should experienced scholars be looking to improve their approach to peer review?
JR: As a senior university teacher I tried to organize a Journal Club for discussing reviewing aspects of published papers. The aim was to promote and support younger colleagues as reviewers. I think this was a good initiative. My best advice to early career researchers is to discuss reviewing issues with more experienced colleagues. Such discussions can provide good opportunities, both to share the work and to help new reviewers to grow into their roles.