Feature

For years, the Harvard Law Review and the Yale Law Journal have put legal scholarship in the hands of exceptional second- and third-year students who are talented enough to make law review. But student involvement in peer review for psychology journals--as well as for most medical and sociology journals--is more the exception than the rule.

That may soon be changing. More journals, including Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology and Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (PPRP) are launching programs to teach students how the peer-review process works and how to write reviews.

And this trend is stirring debate between those who believe peer reviews offer students a great learning experience and those who feel that, while training is important, peer review isn't the place for it. Michela Gallagher, PhD, editor of Behavioral Neuroscience, falls into the latter camp.

"A paper at that stage of the scientific process shouldn't be an educational tool," says Gallagher. She believes students need to acquire reviewing practice in graduate training workshops and only move up to peer review once they've earned their PhD.

Some editors and authors fear students may lack the expertise needed to write reviews, and others voice concerns about sharing confidential manuscripts with students.

But other psychologists see the manuscript-review process as an excellent way to teach students how to write high-quality, constructive reviews. And editors involved with this type of mentoring say it's working well.

"Some of the best reviews I have had came from students," says William Davidson, PhD, editor of the American Journal of Community Psychology. "Saying students can't review manuscripts is like saying students can't do research."

Preparing the next generation

Editors and faculty who support student reviewing say it provides training that students wouldn't get otherwise. Not all graduate programs cover manuscript reviewing and not all faculty offer this type of one-on-one mentoring, they say. Participating as a fourth reviewer or writing a joint review with a faculty advisor--the two ways student reviewing is usually handled--can be a great learning opportunity.

While some may fear students having too much power over researchers' careers, editors who use student reviewers point out that, in most cases, they know which reviews are submitted by students. And ultimately, journal editors decide whether to incorporate any reviewers' comments in their letters to authors.

One journal that has mentored students successfully for more than 10 years is the American Journal of Community Psychology, the journal of Div. 27 (Community). Twenty-eight of the journal's 37 editorial board members mentor a student reviewer, says Davidson. The mentor can either help the student craft his or her own review, or they can collaborate and submit a joint review.

Davidson has received 300 student reviews in the past two years. Overall, he says, the system works extremely well.

"While it is more work for the editorial board, people universally view it as a very positive aspect of this journal," says Davidson.

Student peer review has also been successful for Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, the journal of Div. 45 (Ethnic Minority Affairs). Last year, the journal's masthead included 11 student editors--graduate students who collaborate on reviews with each of the journal's eight associate editors. Each associate editor closely supervises one to four students, slowly familiarizing him or her with the review-writing process.

"Gradually, the student gains responsibility," says the journal's editor, Lillian Comas-Díaz, PhD.

The system is working so well, says Comas-Díaz, that the journal aims to ask its 45 consulting editors if they'd be interested in working with student editors.

And the opportunities for student input in the review process continue to grow. Next year, David Rosenbaum, PhD, editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, plans to request nominations of talented graduate students to serve as student reviewers.

"Their input would complement rather than replace input from nonstudent reviewers," says Rosenbaum.

Mary Beth Kenkel, PhD, incoming editor and former associate editor for PPRP, hopes to enable more students to review at PPRP during her tenure. Each of the journal's associate editors already mentor several student reviewers.

"I have never had any complaints about reviews done by students," says Kenkel, who as associate editor regularly met with five student reviewers to critique their work. "In fact, they have often been held up as some of the best reviews."

But students aren't peers

Other editors assert that on-the-job training to review manuscripts could tarnish the integrity of the review process. Behavioral Neuroscience's Gallagher says that while training students in manuscript reviewing is an extremely important part of their development, "manuscripts that are submitted to journals are submitted for scientific review and not for the education of students. It is crossing some boundaries that for me are pretty clear," she says. "I know incredibly bright undergraduates who would do a good job as reviewers, but you have to draw the line somewhere."

Former editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, Stewart Hulse, PhD, agrees. "If you submit an article, you are entitled to a review by your peers," he says. "But if the lines start blurring, the whole foundation of the peer-review system could be in jeopardy."

Gallagher says she has no problem with a scientist identifying a postdoctoral fellow who is qualified to review, but she doesn't think it's an appropriate role for a graduate student. Gallagher prepares her students to review through a seminar she teaches that includes manuscript reviewing at Johns Hopkins University, where she is professor of psychology.

"You don't need a 'live' unpublished paper. The most important ingredient in learning to write a constructive review is feedback on the student's review, which is not, in fact, a part of the communication between reviewers and editors," Gallagher says. "I believe that students can be equally well mentored in writing reviews using published papers or papers under preparation in their own laboratory."

Likewise, Clara Hill, PhD, former editor of the Journal of Counseling Psychology (JCP), has concerns about student reviewers. When she first took the journal's helm, she was committed to the idea of mentoring students in the review process, but reconsidered when she heard some editors' concerns about confidentiality breaches--such as a student sharing a manuscript with a class--possible lack of expertise, or students focusing too heavily on minor details.

"I've never asked a student to do one since," says Hill.

What worried her most was the possibility that a mentor would taper off his or her supervisory role before a student was ready to review on his or her own. Instead of using students in its review process, Hill says, JCP slowly mentors its new PhD-level reviewers into the process.

Permission first is key

APA journals have no formal editorial policy on student reviewing. APA's Council of Editors has discussed the issue several times, but not with a great deal of consensus, says Nora Newcombe, PhD, the council's chair. The council agreed that students who are experts on a topic are probably qualified to review, says Newcombe, especially if mentoring is taking place, but they have yet to formally endorse the practice.

The council does stress, however, that reviewers who want to share a manuscript with a student must secure permission from the editor first. "Editors feel very uneasy about manuscripts being exchanged without their knowledge," Newcombe says.

Meanwhile, many psychologists maintain some middle ground--torn between the possible benefits of training students through peer review and concerns about lack of expertise and confidentiality breaches, says Newcombe.

And, despite the concerns, psychology graduate students are conducting more reviews--even at journals that don't have formal programs. While student reviews are rare at Developmental Psychology, editor James Dannemiller, PhD, developed guidelines for handling these reviews when he became editor in 1999--hoping to head off any anxiety among authors. He requires students to have publishing experience and reviewers to ask his permission and explain confidentiality to the student before sharing a manuscript, and to offer guidance throughout the process.

"This is still peer review--the student reviews are in addition to the standard set of peer reviews," says Dannemiller, adding that student reviews are still unusual at Developmental. But when they do occur, he says, "I go to great lengths to ensure professors take it seriously--and they do take it seriously."

"I think it is one of the most important responsibilities researchers have, to contribute to peer review," he says. "But I also think this is a place where training and mentoring can take place."