Towards a greater diversity of reviewers

Authors, Reviewers and Editors: All part of the review process!

As an author, I know the peer review process can be stressful and frustrating; waiting for months to finally get a decision on a submitted manuscript, generally after months or years of work. As a reviewer, I know how reviewing manuscripts can be demanding, adding extra tasks to an already busy schedule. As an Associate Editor (Journal of Ecology and Ecology and Evolution), I know how finding reviewers can be a difficult task, sometimes sending more than 10 requests to get two reviewers for a manuscript. But we, Authors, Reviewers and/or Associate Editors are all part of the process and we must play our part.

editMost of you reading this are authors, and many are reviewers, but it is not always clear what  happens behind the scenes of the peer review process: what happens after I submit my paper, and why does it takes so long?

Journal processes vary but generally the submitted manuscript will first be processed by the editorial staff before one of the journal Editors makes an initial assessment. The manuscript will then be passed on to an Associate Editor (AE) who decides whether or not to send the paper out to external reviewers. 

From my experience as an AE, finding reviewers can be difficult and sometimes takes as long as 1-2 weeks. But how do AEs choose reviewers? Several Journal of Ecology AEs agreed to share their ways to find reviewers and give tips for other AEs.

New Journal of Ecology AE Mahasweta Saha said she prefers to select reviewers who are not friends (collaborators with whom the authors have published before) nor foes of the authors (with whom they have conflicts, often indicated as non-preferred reviewer by the authors). Meghan Avolio usually chooses one reviewer suggested by the author, one who is cited a lot in the manuscript and one who is proposed by the reviewing software (e.g. ScholarOne provides a list of potential reviewers based on matching keywords with previous papers they authored). Meghan also makes sure that the reviewers have not reviewed for Journal of Ecology recently, something we can see through the reviewing software. Glenn Matlack follows a similar procedure but also sends requests to researchers he is personally aware of and often uses reviewers suggested by those who decline invitations (this is very valuable for AEs so please provide suggestions when you decline a review).

Ignasi Bartomeus, Frida Piper and Ana Pineda find reviewers who, based on their expertise, would be interested in reading the manuscript so they would be more likely to agree to review. Both Ignasi and Ana use google to find reviewers working in research domain similar to the author. Frida focuses her search on the current interests of reviewers as opposed to past research. Another option for Ana is to contact authors of manuscripts she has previously handled, hoping that they would feel some sort of obligation to give back and review for others. Moreover, Ignasi takes notes at conferences about early-career researchers (ECRs) giving good talks and often invites them as reviewers for manuscript on matching topics.

Roberto Salguero-Gómez finds a higher rate of engagement (and often the most detailed reviews) by tracking down ECRs of the labs whose principal investigator is well known within the research field. Rob also recommends collaboratively reviewing papers with students and postdocs in order to provide authors with high quality comments and train the next generation of researchers on how to perform one of the most critical aspects of academia: providing critical and constructive feedback.

As mentioned before, finding reviewers is a difficult task but add diversity (i.e. making sure that the selected reviewers are representative of the diversity of the ecological community) and it becomes a real challenge. It is however very important to think about diversity when selecting reviewers, because it encourages a fair assessment of the manuscript by reducing potential bias (conscious and/or unconscious).

Meghan and Ignasi said that they try to achieve a gender-balanced set of reviewers whenever possible. Christer Nilsson, who has handled over 500 papers for journals over the years, considers reviewer lists with only men or only women as a failure, even though he cannot always control the outcome and might still end up with two men or two women accepting his invitation to review. Christer also tries to include both junior and senior researchers and often contacts experienced professors knowing that they will probably be too busy to review but hoping that they will be able to suggest good postdocs as alternatives. For Christer, another attempt to include diversity in his list of reviewers is to spread out the reviewers over several different labs, countries and continents.

I have a similar approach to Christer, and while it sometimes seems impossible, I believe it is doable to include diversity, even within the set of two or three reviewers who will end up reviewing the manuscript. I start by sending requests to three reviewers making sure first to have a woman and a man in the list (I believe it both reduces potential discrimination but also think that men and woman can have different visions, thus providing useful complementary feedback for the author). I also make sure I invite both an ECR and a senior researcher (i.e., young mind versus experienced mind, again useful for the author to improve his/her manuscript) and try to ensure that they are all from different countries (this is pretty easy to do if you are mindful).

Then, I wait for their decision to accept or decline. If they all accept (it has never happened yet!) then my job is done. If none of them accept I start over again. If only one accepted then I adapt my new request based on who is the reviewer I have already secured. For example, if it is a woman then I will pay less attention to include a woman in my new reviewers’ requests, but if this woman is a senior scientist, then I will focus on finding an ECR that might be willing to review.

I also use my knowledge about people I personally know to increase diversity of all sorts into the reviewer list. By following this step-wise procedure, I generally succeed in having a ‘diverse’ set of reviewers: it does not always work perfectly but at least it ensures that we do not have two reviewers of exactly the same profile (principally gender and career stage). Recently developed reviewer databases are also very useful such as the ECR Database or DiversityEEB which provides three groupings: racial/ethnic minority; person with disability; other underrepresented).

If you have any comments, feel free to get in touch with the Blog Team, comment on this post below or tweet it with #DiversityinEcology

Pierre Mariotte, Blog Editor and Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology


This week is Peer Review Week 2018 – global event celebrating the essential role that peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality. Find out more by searching #PeerReviewWeek18 

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