12 August 2013

Everyone's a critic: Peer review in NZ ecology

If you are the sort of person who doesn't take criticism well then you probably shouldn't be a scientist. Much of science revolves around the publishing of scientific papers - EcoLincNZ articles are mostly based on a recently published paper. In order for a paper to be published though, the authors need to convince the editor of a journal (and often an assistant editor) as well as several other scientists that their potential paper is up to a suitable standard and that it fits with what the journal is about. This process is known as peer review. Typically, each paper starts as a manuscript that is sent into a prospective journal. The editor of the journal makes a quick decision about whether it is in the ballpark and then organises it to be sent out to scientists who work in the same particular field. Comments on the maunscript then come back containing constructive criticisms, which often are extensive enough that the manuscript is not accepted for publication at that stage but needs some more work. And so on. The system depends on editors finding enough scientists to review manuscripts. With the increase in tasks competing for our time, and the huge increase in manuscripts being submitted, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find enough reviewers for each manuscript. Peer review doesn't work so well when there aren't enough peers. So what to do about it? One way to get more reviewers is to create new ones.

One of the strange things about peer review, especially given how important it is to science, is that there is very little training for new researchers. Talking with my colleagues, most couldn't remember their first experience of reviewing a manuscript but they did remember that they had no training and that they had to guess at what was required. Over time you develop a sense of what works in producing a good review, usually through trial and error. There must be a better way! Some journals have toyed with the idea of introducing a mentoring system. The New Zealand Ecological Society decided last year that it was time to invest in the future of New Zealand ecology and develop a mentoring system for the New Zealand Journal of Ecology. Tim Curran (Lincoln University), Ellen Cieraad (Landcare Research) and Joanne Monks (Department of Conservation) were tasked with developing the system. They outlined their plan in NZJE and more information is available from the journal website. The Society is asking for experienced researchers to sign up to be mentors and for new researchers to sign up to be mentored. Being a mentor is possibly the most important thing that us old hands can do for science although, ironically, we get almost no training in that either (although here are some tips). The journal team will match up pairs who will both read through a manuscript and submit a joint review on it. The new reviewers will gain experience through working with the old hands, a greater pool of reviewers will be created and networks across generations will be developed. It all seems like a win-win situation.

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