Peer-review is an essential part of the scientific publishing process. Not only for primary research articles, but also for Review articles to ensure a balanced, timely and forward-looking article. Finding the best referees for a given manuscript is one of the most challenging tasks of editorial work. As editors, we want to ensure a fair and constructive peer-review process, resulting in an improved and inspirational Review article. Of course, peer-review can be difficult sometimes – both from an author and a referee perspective (and from an editor perspective as well); in particular, Review articles are often opinionated to a certain extent, and, as we all know, opinions can divide, especially, in an interdisciplinary field, such as bioengineering. For example, clinicians may have a different point of view when it comes to real-world applications of bioengineered systems and devices in the clinic. Similarly, the significance of innovations may be regarded differently in different parts of the world. This is what makes the peer-review process of Review articles both complex and exciting, because it essentially reflects the scientific discussions in our field. What are the most important papers in this area? What are the most exciting current research avenues? And what has not really worked in the past? What are the next key milestones?
Review articles can impact the direction a field is heading to, and influence how readers are introduced to an area. Therefore, it is important to ensure a balanced peer-review process and to hear and take into account diverse voices. Traditionally, we have invited more senior scientists to comment on our manuscripts, ideally, covering all aspects discussed in the article. While researchers, who have been in a field for a long time, are certainly well placed to provide comments on the history of a field and perhaps the bigger picture, early-career researchers, that is, PhD students and Postdocs, often offer a fresh perspective. We would love to hear both! After all, trainees are at the heart of new research developments, and usually know the literature very well. Therefore, when we invite a referee, we encourage them to co-review the Review article together with one of their trainees. We hope that such a co-review process is also beneficial for trainees, as they get to read the latest Reviews in their area before anyone else does, and get the chance to offer a different perspective.
We believe that peer-reviewing can also help improve your own writing. The more you read, the better you get at writing. Just as Stephen King said: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.” (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft).
So how does it work? We encourage all our referees to involve one early-career researcher in the peer-review process. If the referee decides to participate, we ask them to share the contact details of their trainee, and then we will send detailed peer-review instructions and training material directly to the early-career researcher. Although the invited referee will remain the primary contact and submit the final report, the referee report will be considered a co-review, meaning that both the invited referee and the early-career researcher receive recognition for their contributions. We ensure that the referee activity of the early-career researcher is logged on our systems so that they are recognised for their review activity. In addition, if both opt in, we will also acknowledge both referees on the published article.
What are the points to consider when reviewing a Review article? As mentioned, it’s a bit different than for primary research articles. Key is that the article is timely and provides a useful addition to the existing literature. Moreover, the scope and aims of the article need to be clear. It is also important that the ideas are logically presented, and that the article is accessible to a wide audience, including readers who are not specialists in this field. After all, we want our articles to be read by a broad readership, so accessibility and clarity are important. If, as a referee, no matter if senior or early-career, you struggle to understand the concepts discussed in the article, please do point this out so that the discussion can be improved in terms of clarity. The article should also provide a balanced overview of the literature. What do we mean with balanced? This is indeed a tricky question, in particular, because our Reviews are rather short, so selecting the key references can be challenging. Credit should be given where credit is due; however, the diversity of the field should also be recognized, keeping citation biases and disparities in scientific publishing in mind. We would also like our referees to give feedback on the new insights provided in the manuscript. A good Review should always teach you something new. Although our authors are encouraged to be opinionated, they should not ignore alternative points of view. As a referee, we would like you to comment on the different opinions in a field.
Finally, the figures, boxes and tables need to provide clear and accurate information. Are there any additional or alternative display items that you think the authors should include? Please do not hesitate to give suggestions and ideas. Usually, our authors take them on board.
Interested in learning more about peer-review? Check out this free online course with lots of training material.
Here is hoping that we can work with many early-career researchers, both as authors and referees, on Nature Reviews Bioengineering articles.