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Refereeing Research Papers

Your research staff can play a role in the peer process by participating as referees for manuscripts. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so?

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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Allowing Your Staff to Participate in the Peer-Review Process Delivers a Host of Benefits

Reading and using the results of research papers provides the lifeblood of industrial research: innovation. At the same time, peer review requires that researchers who are experts in the same field evaluate these manuscripts prior to publication to suggest improvements, require additional work to prove assertions if necessary, and identify errors. Reputable research and trade journals publish papers only after the author has responded to reviews and made required changes. Peer review plays a critical, some would say essential, role in improving the quality of published research papers. Sense About Science—a charitable trust to promote good science and evidence for the public—sponsored the Peer Review Survey 2009, which is available at index.php/site/project/395. In the survey, 91 percent of participants said that peer review improved the quality of their last published paper.

A second survey, by the Publishing Research Consortium (PRC), found that 69 percent of the respondents enjoyed being able to improve the quality of a paper, while 75 percent enjoyed seeing new research prior to publication. The PRC is a group representing publishers and professional societies supporting research on scholarly publication; their survey is available at www. final.pdf.

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Your research staff can play a role in the peer process by participating as referees for manuscripts. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so? Should you encourage your research staff to participate in reviewing manuscripts?

Positive factors

Conducting a thorough manuscript review takes time. However, doing so can improve your staff ’s morale by allowing them to participate in basic research. PRC survey results indicate that 90 percent of the survey respondents said that they act as manuscript referees because they believe that it enables them to play an active role in the scientific community. Your own lab’s projects may benefit from your staff members receiving an advance look at research results that may be relevant to their own work. In addition, 86 percent of survey respondents reported that they enjoy the process of conducting manuscript peer reviews.

One problem noted by survey respondents is that new manuscripts often don’t cite relevant previous work. Eighty-one percent think that peer review should ensure that previous research is acknowledged; however, only 54 percent think that it currently does. Your staff members experienced in a particular field can make a valuable contribution by drawing authors’ attention to previously published work described but not cited in a manuscript.

Reviewing also helps your laboratory staff develop professional networks outside your company by acquainting them with researchers in fields related to their own work. Peer review can be particularly helpful in learning the names and affiliations of little-known but up-and-coming researchers in fields relevant to your laboratory’s work. Research discussions and visits may even lead to having your laboratory fund some of the work of these rising stars.

Reviewers are anonymous. Among the survey respondents, 58 percent said they would be less likely to review manuscripts if their signature on a report were published. Seventy-six percent favor having only the editor know who the reviewers are. Of course your staff members can contact research paper authors without revealing that they reviewed the authors’ manuscripts.

By reviewing research papers, your staff member gets an advance look at the work of coauthors, graduate students or postdoctoral researchers who may be valuable additions to your staff.

Some industries, such as those in the petroleum, chemical, paper and corrosion fields, boast excellent trade journals that publish peer-reviewed papers. Being a manuscript reviewer for such a trade journal can result in your staff member receiving an invitation to write a review in the same technology area. Such a review can add to the reputation of your laboratory and result in new business for your firm.

Potential negative factors

One issue associated with peer review is the time required to review a manuscript. However, according to the Peer Review Survey, technology has made reviewing easier now than it was only five years ago.

Lack of guidance on how to review manuscripts may be a concern among your staff members, making them reluctant to conduct peer reviews. More than half of respondents to the Sense About Science survey, 56 percent, said that there is a lack of guidance on how to review. Just over two-thirds, 68 percent, said that formal training would help. Such training is becoming more available. For example, in November 2009 there was a workshop on reviewing manuscripts held at the American Chemical Society’s Southwest Regional Meeting. One possibility is to bring an experienced research manuscript reviewer to your facility to conduct such a workshop. Inviting young science faculty members from nearby universities and colleges to also attend could redound to the credit of your laboratory.

Detecting plagiarism and fraud when reviewing manuscripts is a noble aim but is not generally practical due to the time and extensive work required.

Final thoughts

Reviewing research manuscripts can be a rewarding activity for your staff members if done in moderation. Since most researchers enjoy acting as reviewers, laboratory managers may have to assume one more responsibility: monitoring to ensure that staff members do not become overenthusiastic participants in the peer review process. One way to maintain the needed control is to require that staff members obtain their supervisor’s permission to referee a manuscript, while making it clear that you support a moderate amount of manuscript review.