The Fourth Reviewer: Pre-print reviews, parental monikers, and points for student participation

(Flickr: Heather Smithers)
In this one case, it would be acceptable to call the parents “old coots.” (Flickr: Heather Smithers)

Tim Vines is an evolutionary ecologist who found his calling in the process of peer review. He was Managing Editor of Molecular Ecology from 2008 to 2015, launched The Molecular Ecologist in 2010, and he’s now the founder and Managing Editor of Axios Review. Here, Tim is The Fourth Reviewer, taking on your questions about peer review and publishing. Got a question for the Fourth Reviewer? Send us an e-mail!

Say I post a paper to a pre-print server, and one of my preferred reviewers comments on it. Can I still name them as preferred reviewers when I submit the paper? Or do I actually need to list them as reviewers with conflicts, now that they’ve given me feedback directly?

If your preferred reviewer only pointed out a typo, ignore the below and list them as a preferred reviewer for the journal. If they’ve given more extensive feedback, the most appropriate course of action is to thank them in the acknowledgements for “providing feedback on an earlier version” or something like that. The journal will probably end up excluding them as a reviewer – they’ve already had their say on the paper – but at least they’re getting credit for their contribution.

You can still add them as a preferred reviewer if you like, but putting forward people who are likely to give a positive set of comments typically raises eyebrows at the journal. It’s far better to name people that you think are well placed to give an objective assessment of this version of the paper.

Decades ago we were taught in genetics classes that mother was an incorrect term for the female parent in matings of egg laying species. ‘Mother,’ relating to birth, was ok for live bearers, but the female parents in experiments with egg laying species should be referred to as ‘female (parent)’ or ‘dam.’ ‘Mother’ now is seen in many papers to refer to the female parents in matings of fish. Is my understanding obsolete? What is the correct way to refer to parents in experimental matings? ‘Mother’ and ‘father?’ ‘Dam’ and ‘sire?’ (‘Sire’ doesn’t seem quite right for fish, birds, etc.)

Good question. There’s a lot to be said for using the correct word whenever possible, as it’s evidence you’ve thought a lot about the issue at hand. Using ‘dam’ instead of ‘mother’ for egg laying species falls into that category, and if you keep going with it you might even inspire the next generation to wise up and start using the right word too. On the other hand, the youngsters might retort that everyone knows what they mean by ‘mother’, and it saves the reader/listener from a half second spent trying to remember what ‘dam’ means, and whether you’ve suddenly started talking about a riverine obstruction instead.

Probably the best we can hope for is that ‘dam’ will become the standard term in the formal literature and ‘mother’ the term for when you’re playing god in the lab. With respect to your last point, I agree that sire sounds too regal for a dead fish with its testes in a petri dish, so how about ‘miltman?’

I’ve always thought it was a good idea to allow graduate students to partake in the peer review process. As a lab exercise, I suggested to the PI – I’m a postdoc – that two of the new students help me review a paper that was relevant to their work. We could make it a small group exercise, critically evaluate the paper, etc. I view this as a valuable exercise and it was part of my graduate training. My idea was dismissed and there was a suggestion that this violated the sanctity of the peer review process.

My questions are:

i) is it okay to include involve graduate students in a paper you are reviewing?

ii) is it okay to include involve graduate students in a paper you are reviewing without consenting with the journal?

We should probably start by wondering whether the peer review process really is all that sacred. At the level of the individual paper, each review and editorial decision impacts some small piece of science and someone’s career, and that alone means it should be approached with respect. The bigger picture is that peer review is one of the two ways by which modern society attempts to establish ‘truth’ (the other is the legal system), and hence we should only mess with the traditions if we’re sure they’re out of date.

Confidentiality is certainly one of these big traditions, and it’s there for some very good reasons. First, the authors are aware that their paper may contain some embarrassing errors, and they’d like the opportunity to deal with these before their paper gets out into the public sphere. Second, publication in a journal is typically how researchers assert primacy on an idea or technique, and it’s unethical for anyone else involved in the review process to use information they gain during peer review to deny the authors that primacy. This means the reviewers and editors can’t reveal details of the paper to anyone else, and nor can they do anything about what they read in the paper themselves.

Of course, it’s very hard for journals to enforce this confidentiality, and I suspect that reviewers do sometimes mull over one or more elements of the paper with a trusted colleague without telling the journal. This breach of confidentiality may lead to a more useful review, but it deprives the editor of a useful bit of information: reviewer X did most of the review, but Y did chip in a few useful comments. If Y is an expert in those aspects, their input does substantially add to the overall assessment. It’s best practice (and good courtesy) for reviewer X to check with the journal before showing the paper to Y, but it’s not the end of the world if they only mention Y’s contribution in their submitted review. [This might be controversial, but it’s pragmatic.]

With respect to sharing reviewing duties with grad students, I think journals should consider being much more permissive, principally in the interests of training the next generation of reviewers. Here’s a proposed workflow.

First, the PI (or postdoc) must make sure that the student has no Conflict of Interest over the authors or the subject matter of the paper – the simplest approach is to just ask the student (this is also a good opportunity to discuss COI’s and review confidentiality).

Second, they decide who is going to contribute the majority of the review. If it’s the PI, they accept the journal’s review request and (once the review is completed) inform the journal that student X contributed to the review in their confidential comments to the editor. If the student is to be the principle reviewer, the PI declines the request and emails the journal to ask that the review request be sent to the student instead. As above, the student informs the journal of the PI’s input in their confidential comments to the editor.

So, to answer your question: I think grad students should be involved in the review process, as they’ve a lot to contribute and a lot to learn. Moreover, I think they should be able to get involved in peer review without case-by-case permission from the journal, but only when the journal has given explicit permission for something like the above workflow to take place.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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