From the APA Science Student Council

Getting Involved in the Peer Review Process

Becoming involved in the peer review process, particularly as graduate students, can be an incredibly informative and career-building experience.

The Science Student Council is a group of nine graduate students who spend a couple of weekends a year with the Science staff, advising us on programs and activities that would benefit graduate students in psychological science. This month, and every month for the next year or so, the students will present useful information that other graduate students need to know! Visit the Science Student Council to learn more about the activities of the SSC.

Getting Involved in the Peer Review Process
by A. Janet Tomiyama

In the publish-or-perish world of the psychological scientist, sometimes we are more preoccupied with ranting and raving against anonymous peer reviewers than with actually becoming those reviewers ourselves. However, becoming involved in the peer review process, particularly as graduate students, can be an incredibly informative and career-building experience. First and foremost, it’s a CV line (under “Service,” put “Ad Hoc Reviewer--Name of Journal”). Second, you get to read and learn from others’ cutting edge work. Third, by taking an objective and critical perspective from reviewing others work, you can hone your own scientific skills.

But first – what is peer review? Peer review refers to the examination of a manuscript submitted to a journal by anonymous scientific peers. After a thorough review, reviewers suggest changes to the manuscript and make a recommendation (the rare “accept as is,” the common “revise & resubmit,” and the dreaded “reject”).

Getting involved in this process is not as daunting as it may seem. The most common way is by assisting faculty in manuscript reviews that they have been requested to complete. In this case, the faculty member should inform the editor that you will be assisting on the review; this not only ensures that everyone involved in the review gets appropriate credit, but it also makes certain that you have authorized access to an otherwise privileged document. Seeing that you have conducted a fair and thorough review, the editor may file your name as a potential reviewer for future manuscripts. Second, if you have submitted a manuscript, you may be requested to be a reviewer, as editors also draw upon the pool of authors who have previously submitted their own work to that journal. Third, some journals like the Journal of Social Issues have student positions on their editorial boards. These positions are usually appointed by the journal editor and are given to students with some publishing experience.

A final way is to actually contact an editor to offer up your peer review services. This approach is usually most successful when you have some sort of publication record, but is still an option if you don’t. Editors are always looking to expand their base of reviewers, and may be just as happy to send a manuscript to a faculty member’s advisee to get the review done.

If you are then given a manuscript to review--what now? There are some great resources on how to write a review (e.g., Kazdin 1995; 1998; Sternberg, 1997), and your advisor will probably be another good resource. Overall, a review should be specific as to how a manuscript should be changed, should outline both the strengths and weaknesses of a paper, and should focus on answering three main questions (Kazdin, 1998):

  1. Does this paper make an important substantive contribution to this area of research?

  2. Does the methodology (design and execution) permit one to draw the conclusions the author wishes to make?

  3. Is the paper well organized and complete in explaining what was done and why and how it was done?

A final note - the tone of the review should be polite and constructive. Everyone has heard horror stories of mean and nasty reviews that personally attack the author. Interestingly, younger reviewers can sometimes be the most strident in their reviews. A prominent professor at UCLA once said, “You submit your manuscript and then just pray it doesn’t get sent to a junior faculty member--young faculty are merciless!” Remember, we as graduate students are the next generation of peer reviewers, and can determine the future culture of peer review – let’s keep it nice.

For more info: The SSC has created a publication called “A graduate student’s guide to involvement in the peer review process." This guide has a sample editorial decision letter that will give you some idea of what a review looks like.

Kazdin, A. E. (1995). Preparing and evaluating research reports. Psychological Assessment, 7, 228-237.

Kazdin, A. E. (1998). Methodological issues and strategies in clinical research, Second edition. Washington, DC, USA: American Psychological Association.

Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.) (1997). Reviewing scientific works in psychology. Washington, DC, USA: American Psychological Association.