It was only a week and a half ago that I was reveling in the fact that I had not been asked to review anything for quite some time. Oh, how the karma gods looked unkindly on that! I received a last-minute review request from a program officer at NSF two Fridays ago, which I agreed to do only to find out they wanted it back the following Monday. Of course, I already had plans for the weekend so it ended up being a day late, but they were fine with that. What was funny (not ha-ha, the eye-pecking bird kind) was that I got a review request from Science not 5 minutes after I agreed to the NSF one. I didn’t really feel like I could turn down Science, so I jumped on that one too. Now, in the last week, I have gotten three more review requests. Luckily I was able to turn one away because of massive conflict of interest, but this is the kind of thing that happens as soon as you think you have a few minutes to think about research.
But, one thing that really struck me while doing the Science review was that it is hard to be totally objective with papers at that level. You are asked to evaluate whether the manuscript is “Science material”, which is completely subjective. If the paper is in your field then you might find it more interesting than most would, or you may want to increase the readership of papers related to your work, which might benefit you do the road. Even if I am not submitting a paper to Science or Nature later on, it still looks good to have a bunch of high-impact papers in your citation list. At the same time, it can be hard to evaluate the novelty of a study on something you are very familiar with in the way that someone outside the field might see it. I think we are all subject to these biases, whether we acknowledge them or not. Added to this is the possibility of writing a “perspective” (in the case of Science). If the paper is published and editors like your comments, they may ask you to do a summary paper with your own insights into the field added, which is a nice bonus on the CV. So, if the paper is something that has a shot, in many ways it is to the advantage of a reviewer to advocate for it. Is this a good thing? I don’t know.