Reader Poll: The review echo

Jun 04 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

My academic path hasn't been exactly.... linear. I've made a rather large scientific transitions between various stages of my training, resulting in a publication record that has several themes. Overall this has been good for me, but it's not uncommon for me to be invited to give a talk, or review a paper, on a topic I haven't actively worked on in years. In the case of a talk I offer to present new and exciting data we have recently generated on our current lab obsessions, but reviews are a little different.

Generally I inform the AE that the topic is no longer something I follow closely, but that's rarely a deterrent. Having to chase down reviewers myself, I know that some reviewer pools are shallow and I would prefer someone with slightly dated experience over tangential experience. I'm not saying I can't contribute a solid review, but it does make me a little uncomfortable (or makes it more work) when my knowledge of the particular topic is >5 years old.

My question for today is: how far do go back into your scientific history to handle the review of a manuscript? If your training has all been along a similar theme, how far do you extend yourself?

7 responses so far

  • phagenista says:

    I also have a very non-linear career path. I once did a review on a topic related to my undergraduate project when I was a starting postdoc (I wasn't in the habit of turning any ad hoc review requests down at the time). I made enough spare time that I made myself more current on the subject, and think I did a decent review.

    As a professor I no longer have the time to read other papers to help me review the manuscript in front of me.

  • eeke says:

    Usually, there is >1 reviewer per manuscript. I routinely get papers that are a little outside of what I'm working on, but I have sufficient knowledge to evaluate whether the authors' concluding statements are supported by the data presented. Isn't that the point? If I lack expertise in an aspect of the manuscript that I didn't pick up in the abstract, I will either seek advice, or admit in the review that my expertise in a particular aspect is thin, but I have confidence in other aspects of the paper. With 2-3 reviewers per article, one would hope that there is sufficient diversity among these people that the manuscript receives a fair and unbiased evaluation. Generally, most of us have sufficient training as scholars to know good science when we see it. If there are flaws in the experimental design, concluding remarks, etc, it really isn't all that difficult to catch.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    If there are flaws in the experimental design, concluding remarks, etc, it really isn't all that difficult to catch.

    I guess that all depends on the range. Yes, everyone routinely reviews manuscripts on the edge of their comfort zone, but with which you have familiarity of the relevant lit. In my case, I run into situations where I have not been engaged in a particular field for some time. Sure, I can pick up on methodological and interpretation issues, but may miss issues that are pertinent to the recent subfield lit.

  • DJMH says:

    I have also jumped around a bit. Mostly I still accept review requests, because as a postdoc I have the time to sink into it and want the line on my CV. But otherwise, I would only agree to review something that I'm no longer pursuing if I am interested/excited to read the manuscript.

  • odyssey says:

    If I lack expertise in an aspect of the manuscript that I didn't pick up in the abstract, I will either seek advice, or admit in the review that my expertise in a particular aspect is thin, but I have confidence in other aspects of the paper.

    I do not recommend admitting in a review that you're not an expert in an aspect of the work. That can undermine your credibility should the authors contest the reviews. I would tell the AE, but not the authors.

  • Geologist says:

    I have this issue very often. I usually weigh all the factors before deciding what to do. Now, I usually end up saying no, because when I have said yes, I regretted it. I had to do a significant amount of work to 'catch up' in order to be able to do a decent review and not be obvious to the authors that I didn't know what I was talking about because it was something that I no longer do/ haven't kept up on. Ugh. I do feel bad because I understand the problems trying to get reviewers, and because of that I will accept all or nearly all requests that I get that do fit the topics that I am up to date and an expert in, even when they are a huge inconvenience.

  • I am asked to review all kinds of stuff that is not that closely related to anything I've ever worked on myself except in the broadest sense. I take it as an opportunity to learn some new shit. And I clearly do a good job at it, because the same journals come back to me all the time with a very diverse set of papers to review.

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