Peer review: essential guidance for early career researchers

There is very little formal training in peer review offered to early career researchers.

Peer review is an important process in both applying for research funding and publishing existing findings. Early career researchers may be called upon to provide such reviews having had limited experience of the process themselves and often without any formal guidance or training.

Voice of Young Science, part of Sense About Science, a charitable trust promoting evidence-based research, recently organised a 'Nuts and Bolts' workshop, to introduce early career researchers to the key issues in peer review. The workshop was hosted by SAGE with a panel of experts including Professor Stephen Curry (Professor of Structural Biology, Imperial College London and author of over 80 peer-reviewed research articles), Dr Irene Hames (Member of the Committee on Publication Ethics, and an independent editorial and publishing advisor) and Dr Sarah Edwards (co-editor of the journal Research Ethics).

Each of the panellists gave short speeches on the peer review process from their point of view and then Julia Wilson (Development Manager of Sense About Science) led some group discussions on the key issues.  

The role of peer review in science  

At the outset, peer review of funding proposals helps the funding bodies to decide which projects should receive support; identifying whether the right areas are being investigated and assessing the likely success of the methodologies employed. Once the research is completed, peer review plays a role in the dissemination process, ensuring research quality by providing feedback to authors prior to publication. Peer review ought to be an important consideration for those reading published findings, whether they are journalists, policy makers or the public.     

The effect of peer review on quality

The reviewers are chosen on the basis of two qualities: that they are independent (to the authors and research project) and that they are experts in the subject matter. The reviewing process varies among different journals and funding bodies. Reviews may be 'blind' (the anonymity of both the authors and reviewers may reduce bias and fear of reprisal); open (increasing accountability but with potential repercussions for relationships); or the reviewers may know who the authors are, but the authors do not know who their reviewers are. The key point of all reviews, however, is that it acts as an endorsement, showing that the research has been critically and independently appraised for its validity, significance and originality. The peer review process should ensure that fraud and plagiarism are detected prior to publication.   


No process is perfect, however, and peer review comes with its own set of challenges. In some cases it is manipulated which has led to the publication of fraudulent findings, in other cases it can stifle the generation of new ideas, particularly when ground-breaking research takes years to progress through to publication. The process has also come under scrutiny over issues of trust and bias resulting from the subjectivity of reviewers, and more fundamentally, regarding how the benefits of a closed system can extend beyond academia.

Support for Early Career Researchers

Discussions at the workshop revealed that there is little formal training offered to early career researchers regarding the peer review process. There are real benefits for early career researchers who conduct reviews; as well as gaining a familiarisation with the different processes employed, it is an opportunity for them to develop their own writing and data presentation skills and objectivity in their field. Guidance on this is provided by the individual publications or funding bodies, but researchers may also seek advice from supervisors and mentors.

Further information is also available online, including:

Peer Review, The Nuts and Bolts Guide, can be found

A video of the workshop can be found here.

Sabina Michnowicz is an environmental scientist, journalist and industry consultant. 

 Image courtesy of Nic's Events via Flickr.