Guest post from former EOL Freelance Peer Review Manager, Graham Saunders, who is now a Staff Editor at PeerJ
My career in scientific publishing began in June 2014 during the second of my four year undergraduate Biomedical Sciences master’s degree at the University of Southampton. An opportunity arose to work as a freelancer, on behalf of Editorial Office Ltd (EOL). Before then, I had only a vague understanding of the importance of scientific publishing beyond the seemingly nebulous terms, such as “impact factor” and “high-ranking journals”, thrown around by stressed PhD researchers in the teaching labs. I was eager to learn more.
Understanding the power and importance of peer review for scientific publications
Publications, as I began to understand, are how academics make a name for themselves in their chosen field of research. Results and conclusions produced must be ratified and validated by the scientific community in order to advance the field. Science is very much a team sport; there are so many questions to be asked and so many specialisations that it is impossible for any one researcher to “figure it all out”. Time is often spent simply trying to work out the correct question to ask, even if the answer is known to be 42.
I started my work with EOL chasing late PLOS ONE reviewers, to ensure they submitted their comments in a timely manner and did not delay the peer review process. Reviewers of scientific literature are typically unpaid and perform their reviews with the understanding that another academic will review their work in turn (Fig. 1). It is important to stress that without reviewers’ comments, the peer review process could not function.
Fig. 1 (Credit: https://xkcd.com/2025/)
Next, I received training to perform initial checks for manuscripts submitted to PLOS Medicine. Each journal has a specific list of requirements that manuscripts must adhere to, and it was my task to ensure all Is were dotted and Ts were crossed, so the article could be assigned to an Academic Editor (AE) and be sent out for review. The AE feeds back reviewers’ comments to journal staff and adds their own expert opinion on whether they feel an article is appropriate for publication. If given the green light, the article is published in the journal.
Overcoming the difficulties of securing good journal reviewers
After three years working with the PLOS titles, responding to reviewer and author queries, as well as submission checking, I was given the opportunity by EOL to be trained for their scientific team, searching for reviewers for BMJ Open. This task required the ability to assess each manuscript and understand who would be best suited to review the subject matter. Particular care must be taken in reviewer searching to ensure a fair and balanced peer review process. Reviewers are all human, so can at times fall prey to their own biases and prejudgements. It is impossible to know the cliques and quarrels in every single field, so it is vital to pay attention when an author asks a journal to preclude a particular academic from reviewing their work (Fig. 2).
Fig 2. Thanks Reviewer 3! (Credit: Jason McDermott @redpenblackpen)
Searching for reviewers meant spending time delving further into each manuscript, and as such I was exposed to even more of the weird and wonderful research that goes on in global institutions. It is easy to get blinkered when researching a particular topic, but this can mean overlooking incredible scientific advancements. Working with BMJ Open meant I could keep an eye on literature from the medical sciences, whilst working on my Computational Chemistry PhD. I later began work with PeerJ Computer Science, assisting the Staff Editor in finding computational experts to assess manuscripts. Computer scientist reviewers are trickier to find, as they often prefer to publish work through conference proceedings, rather than articles in journals.
Taking another step in to the world of academic publishing
The best part of freelancing was how easily the work fit around my studies and personal life. As coursework and thesis deadlines ebbed and flowed, having a job without fixed hours was worth its weight in printer ink. I was able to continue freelancing with EOL flexibly throughout my time at university. My decision to undertake a PhD was in no small part influenced by my work in scientific publishing; I had spent four years consuming knowledge, and I wanted to have a go at contributing research to the literature. I published my PhD research in the Biophysical Journal and later presented this work at the 2019 Biophysical Society meeting in Baltimore.
It was during my PhD that I decided that I wanted to continue to develop my career in STEM publishing. I knew that I wanted to work for an open access journal as this approach to publishing breaks down barriers for small/developing research institutions. If high-impact research is hidden behind paywalls, potential scientists are being held back unnecessarily. Further to this, open access journals publish more data as well as the code/programmes used to analyse datasets. This makes published research not only readily accessible, but also much easier to reproduce! Providing aspiring scientists with resources is only ever going to be a benefit to the human race (if you ignore the Lex Luthor types).
A job as Staff Editor with PeerJ Computer Science was advertised on the journal website and I was excited to apply, especially as I had been working with the title for a few months. I had by this point received a high number of rejection emails from other journals with variations on “we have decided to go with a candidate with more experience”, causing the imposter syndrome to go into overdrive. The application process was straightforward: an emailed CV and cover letter, followed by an interview and discussions with a senior editor, as well as one of the journal’s co-founders. I was incredibly grateful to be offered the job with PeerJ, and I cannot wait to further develop myself in my new role. This position ticks boxes I didn’t realise I had; being a relatively new journal, PeerJ is in an excellent position to shake up the STEM publishing industry for the better, and modernise the ways in which scientific content is consumed. I am thankful for my experience with EOL, excited for the future, and I have chosen my side in the Oxford comma wars.
Graham Saunders MBioSci PhD, Staff Editor, PeerJ
Completing your PhD? Interested in peer review?
It is a pleasure to work with PhD students here at Editorial Office and we are privileged to support them in the early stages of their career as researchers. We welcome applications at any time.
We allow flexible working around ongoing study, teaching and research, whilst providing you with the opportunity to get a unique insight into the world of journal publishing and the peer review process. We also offer a competitive hourly rate which includes all training time.
If you would be interesting in working with us, please send us your CV, or just drop us a note to firstname.lastname@example.org