The Veterinary Journal 202 (2014) 1–2

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The Veterinary Journal j o u r n a l h o m e p a g e : w w w. e l s e v i e r. c o m / l o c a t e / t v j l


Ask not what your journal can do for you – ask what you can do for it

Peer review is the central mechanism for ensuring the credibility and reputation of published discoveries in science. The principle is that exposure of a new set of data to critical evaluation by others working in the same field will expose any weaknesses in study design and execution or in presentation of the data. Despite the flaws in the process pointed out by many commentators over the years, it is currently still regarded as the best screening process available, although perhaps it will eventually be supplanted by presentation of data online for open access commentary prior to ‘official’ publication (as is now done in mathematical sciences). However, that process also remains dependent upon a cohort of willing reviewers. Despite their crucial importance it can be difficult for journals to find, engage with and retain reliable reviewers. Mostly, reviewers are individuals with many years’ experience in the specific field, or perhaps more recent research graduates with high level up-to-date expertise. As can be imagined, potential reviewers with these types of skills are likely to have many other demands on their time. In particular, many veterinarians with the appropriate background will be academics, who must also fulfill clinical or diagnostic responsibilities, teach students and carry out research of their own. This then raises the question of why anyone would volunteer their time for reviewing if they are so time-poor. A financial reward would be the obvious solution but even a cursory exploration of the notion provides many reasons why this would not be an easily workable solution. For instance, would a one-word review be enough to be paid? Would there be quality controls in place? Who would do this evaluation? Would longer, or more complicated, papers carry greater payment? It would appear unlikely that direct financial rewards will be provided to reviewers in the near future. Therefore, at first sight, offering one’s time as a reviewer appears to be a selfless act – and indeed there is nothing wrong with being altruistic. However, there are many other benefits that are perhaps easily overlooked. It is of course a type of compliment to be asked to review – it implies that a certain level of expertise, critical thought and trust in personal integrity have been acknowledged. However, this alone does not provide sufficient motivation to read an article carefully, evaluate the whole described scientific process and provide a reasoned and polite series of comments to aid the author. Instead, less obvious forms of payback provide a more sustained ‘feelgood factor’. Individuals engaged in science are implicitly immersed in a process of critical thought and weighing of evidence and this intellectual process can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a referee. Reviewing provides an ideal opportunity to apply these modes of thinking – with the added advantage that it is not nec 1090-0233/© 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

essary for reviewers themselves to generate the data. In many ways, reviewing an article is similar to the ‘journal club’ format familiar to those working in laboratories or in specialist clinical training programs, in which articles are scrutinized for, amongst other attributes, relevance, clarity, validity and accuracy. The fundamental questions of ‘what does this piece of work add to what is already known?’ and ‘how can this information be used in future?’ also apply to both. However, reviewing an article prior to publication carries a supplementary tingle of anticipation – it is much more uncertain whether there will be evidence of an inspiring breakthrough in understanding or, alternatively, a hideous flaw that has been overlooked by the authors. The recent controversy in which the BMJ published erroneous work on the adverse effects of statins serves to illustrate the dangers of such flaws.1 The access to brand new material is another attraction. Those working in the specific field will always want to have access to the most up-to-date information, and this is readily available to reviewers – although of course this privilege must not be abused through plagiarism or malicious comments. In fact, such behavior is extremely uncommon, and apparently a bigger problem at high impact science journals such as Nature where it is alleged there may be overgenerous reviewing from authors’ friends. Because of pressure on their time, many senior academics derive most of their scientific reading from reviewing new articles rather than reading already-published material. This truly keeps them feeling the pulse of their field. Of course, reviewers and authors are often the same people, playing different roles at different times. As such, the reviewing process provides an invaluable opportunity to learn from others how to present new work to make it rapidly accessible and to reach a wide audience. After all, science is at least partially about communication with others – fantastic science that is unintelligible will fail to become influential. Reviewers who are also authors can appreciate the need for constructive criticism and, indeed, the need to provide the reviewing role themselves; it is difficult to complain about a late review if one doesn’t review oneself! One of the frustrations of editorship is watching how some authors will publish widely and frequently in a journal yet unashamedly refuse to take on any reviewer assignments from the same journal. The importance of time allocated to reviewing is becoming increasingly recognized by those outside the journals and publishers themselves. Recently, many academic institutions, in decision-making for promotion and tenure, have begun to take into


See: Accessed 25 May 2014.


Editorial/The Veterinary Journal 202 (2014) 1–2

account the reviewing activities of their members of faculty. Clearly, this scholarly activity demonstrates the commitment to progress in science that is to be expected of those employed in academia. Publishers, including our own, Elsevier, have aided in this process by highlighting individuals who have contributed in this way.2 Not all benefits of reviewing are self-evident, but the process can provide many sources of interest and satisfaction. Ultimately, science is a group endeavor and taking part in this process confers membership of the peer group as an active member, rather than a bystander, with the greater enjoyment that brings. So, for those


See, for example: The Veterinary Journal (2014) 199, e1–e9.

of you who don’t already, please volunteer your services and see how you like it; and for those of you who already do, we hope it brings you pleasure – and we greatly appreciate the work you put in! Nick Jeffery Scientific Editor The Veterinary Journal College of Veterinary Medicine Iowa State University Ames, IA 5001, USA E-mail address: [email protected]

Ask not what your journal can do for you - ask what you can do for it.

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