An update on the pilot GENETICS Peer Review Training Program, which provides early career scientists with a mentored peer review experience in which they participate in authentic manuscript reviews. The second phase of the pilot program is currently accepting applicants.

As a scientific society publisher, the GSA serves our community. That’s why we are so enthusiastic about the GENETICS Peer Review Training Program. For students and postdocs, honing their peer review skills is a chance to practice critical thinking and scientific writing. Because different labs and fields vary in chances for early career scientists (ECSs) to participate in peer review, the availability of this valuable training opportunity is uneven. For the journal, involving ECSs can bring new perspectives. For the field, formal training enhances the value and fairness of peer review—a cornerstone of science.

To provide more equitable training opportunities, GSA piloted the program last summer, soliciting applications for three journal sections (Cellular Genetics, Developmental and Behavioral Genetics, and Evolutionary and Population Genetics). We received hundreds of applications from our members. Reading through the applications was both humbling and motivating for the program managers and editors. It was clear students and postdocs are aware of the importance of good peer review to the scientific process, and nearly all of them expressed a lack of training opportunities. Even when ECSs were given the opportunity to help their mentors with peer review, they typically did not get to benefit from seeing the review their mentor submitted, nor did they see the decision letter from the editor or the other reviews.

From among the many qualified applicants we chose 36 participants residing in eight different countries and 16 US states. We looked for individuals whose scientific expertise is most relevant to the scope of GENETICS and for those who have previously published a manuscript. Most of the participants are postdocs, but the group also includes senior graduate students, assistant professors, and group leaders.

In the first stage of the program, each participant completed seven hours of virtual training that included presentations by our Editor in Chief, Senior Editors, Executive Director, and Managing Editor. Participants learned about the principles and purpose of peer review, scientific misconduct, models of peer review, the journey of a manuscript at GENETICS, system navigation of the reviewer submission site, and more. While we certainly wanted to provide relevant training, we also wanted to foster a deeper sense of community between our leadership and participants.

Feedback from the training has been positive and also helpful in identifying areas of improvement. We have now shortened the training sessions by including more content in our training manual that is distributed to all participants. We will place even greater emphasis on the best practices of peer review during our second pilot, providing direct feedback and interaction with our leadership team.

“Having the editor-in-chief demonstrated the seriousness of the program.”

“It was interesting and helpful to better understand the process of review from the point of view of editors, and the process of who handles different aspects of review.”

“I think the orientation was great. I really liked that we were able to see each other and the platform worked great.”

“I think this session is very helpful. I’m preparing a manuscript, and all the rules for avoiding (unintentional) misconduct are very useful.”

The early career reviewers are now reviewing manuscripts, learning about the peer review process, testing the true scope of their own expertise, and strengthening their communication skills. They are treated like any reviewer; they receive all correspondence from the associate editor, including the decision letter and the other reviews. And the editors provide feedback to the early career reviewer.

From the perspective of the ECS participants, the program seems to be working well. They appreciate being able to see what the other reviewers wrote and have found the feedback from the editors to be valuable. Many also said the training they received helped them to gain confidence as reviewers.

We’ve learned a lot so far about the needs of our participants, editors, and authors. We are continuing to modify the program as we find ways to enhance the benefit for all involved. As with a traditional pool of reviewers, it’s challenging to find the few individuals within the community who have the expertise needed to review a manuscript. Even when there’s been a mismatch in the expertise of the early career reviewer and the topic of the manuscript, the early career reviewers still provided valuable and insightful critiques that the editors felt were worth passing on to the author.

By providing the training and support needed to ensure fair and high-quality reviews, our editors are providing mentorship for early career reviewers that will ultimately benefit all authors.

This spring, we are expanding our program to include early career reviewers for all sections of GENETICS. We encourage early career scientists to apply to join our next group of early career reviewers. 

UPDATE, July 2021: Applications for the full program are now open. Deadline: September 14, 2021.


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More on this topic:

GENETICS Editor in Chief Mark Johnston on the genesis of the program.