Peer Review Week is an annual international event celebrating the essential role peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality.
For some authors, their submission to Veterinary Evidence is their first submission to any journal. So, for Peer Review Week 2019, we decided to ask three published authors to allay any pre-submission nerves by giving authors and readers an insight and overview of what it’s like to go through the peer-review process and why it’s important.
You can also read our Q&A with reviewers.
Introducing the authors
Liz Barter BVSc (Hons)
I graduated from Sydney University in 2012, and then started in mixed practice at Macleay Valley Veterinary Services and Macleay Valley Equine Reproductive Services. To further my interest in equine reproduction I moved to Newmarket in the UK, working at Rossdales as a stud assistant, then later at Twemlows Stud in Shropshire.
Mike Steele BSc (Hons) BVSc MRCVS
I have many years of experience in dairy and cattle consulting, practice, and teaching in the global animal health industry. I recently started my own consultancy, bringing scientific evidence to practical solutions so that customers can be reassured that learning, improvement projects and product development all have strong science foundations.
Clare Knottenbelt BVSc MSc DSAM MRCVS
After graduating from Bristol in 1994 and working for a year in mixed practice, I was the PetSavers Resident in small animal internal medicine at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. I obtained an MSc by Research in Feline Transfusion Medicine and the RCVS Diploma in Small Animal Medicine in 1999. I was Clinical Director of the University of Glasgow’s Small Animal Hospital for six years and worked within the University’s Oncology service for 11 years, before leaving to establish Hawk and Dove.
How did peer review help your paper?
Working in private practice it is often seen that there is little opportunity for scientific publication. My practice supervisors at the time were not publishing and I was unsure how to get involved with researching and investigating within the scientific literature, outside of taking a university position. Whilst I was daunted at the prospect of writing a peer-reviewed article and unsure of the support I would receive at the practice, RCVS Knowledge was both supportive and helpful at every stage. During the peer-review process, I felt my opinion on the subject matter was considered and I was encouraged to investigate and produce material of a high standard.
I get the most satisfaction by being able to share my clinical bottom line with fellow practitioners so that they don’t have to spend their time looking for the same answer. They help their patients more quickly and, hopefully, with more confidence in their decision. If peer review had not occurred, I feel that my conclusions would not hold as much weight with my audience and would be open to more questioning by the reader.
In summary, peer review, for me, is reassurance that my conclusions are sound and the interpretation of my appraisal has been sufficiently thorough.
When the final document is prepared and the review complete, the feelings from the knowledge that the information is as good as it can be is extremely reassuring.
What has been my experience of peer review? So far, after four submissions, it has only been positive. The reviewers have asked relevant questions and not been overly critical. They have thoroughly reviewed my paper and clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what I have written. Comments have been objective and are never personal, which may help the first-time writer feel more confident in their own submissions.
Peer review helps you spot the small errors that creep in when you are too close to something – it’s great to have an external person read the paper through and help it make sense. Also, I had never done a Knowledge Summary before, and, whilst there are guidelines, it was great to find out how much I needed to put in each section. So peer review meant there was more work to do, but it made the finished paper better in the end.
How did I feel going into the process? A little apprehensive. Submitting a paper feels like you are exposing yourself in the same way you do for a lecture or speech, but as the reviewers don’t know you, you can’t rely on your personality to get through!
Peer review remains daunting. In my experience, at least one of the reviewers usually likes what I have done, so it’s easier to take the criticism. However, even though I have been through it many times, I still feel a huge sense of disappointment when a paper needs revising, even if it’s only minor changes. I think that’s probably natural given the amount of time and work you spend on a paper.
What do you feel are the pros and cons to peer review?
The positives of the Knowledge Summaries being peer reviewed is that all opinions can be discussed. This can also prepare you for feedback post-publication. I did not have any negative experiences of the peer-review process. I would prepare potential authors, however, that the process takes time, with two reviewers to read and make comments for several edits. I am eternally grateful for the help and contributions that the reviewers made to create the final manuscript.
For me, the pros outweigh the cons.
The review process ensures that at least two other people have looked at what you have written and been a part of the construction of the paper. They have considered your views and looked with a critical eye at how you have conveyed the statistical information from the literature provided to them. This means that the final submission is not only your own conclusion: two experts in the relevant field have already agreed that your opinion is fit for purpose. This adds a lot of value to your clinical bottom line.
The cons are mainly in timing: it can be months before your review can go from writing to publishing. The advantage that evidence-based veterinary medicine has over textbooks is that it is a lot more up to date. If the process takes a long time, then it has to be accepted that the published version is x-number of months old. Depending on the subject area, this may be unsustainable. Another con to peer review is that it is only as good as the peers that construct the review. For this, we must trust the editing team that they have targeted their opinion leader with precision.
The main pros are that it improves papers by flagging stuff that needs amending and rewording. The major con, however, is that it has resulted in many papers that never get seen. For me, this is really sad. There is a huge amount of imperfect research out there that no-one ever sees. When I spoke to university colleagues, almost everyone had at least one unpublished paper. Whilst some of these might be flawed, I believe that knowledge is a good thing and even a flawed study could drive the future direction of research into a particular problem. There have been many medical papers over the years that have been retracted due to fraudulent peer review and other failings, but once they are out its almost impossible to change people’s belief in the findings. At university we learn to critically review papers so we should be able to read a paper and see some of the flaws for ourselves, but if it’s never seen then that’s not going to be possible.
What would you say to authors who may feel daunted by the process?
I find writing an incredibly daunting process whether it is for a client handout or veterinary report. I also see the huge benefits of contributing towards the literature for your own professional development and those that read the finished product. Knowledge Summaries have allowed me to gain insight into literature reviews and have since allowed me the courage to delve further into scientific publication whilst still working in private practice.
Emotions of going through peer review are, of course, personal, and this is a process in itself. Firstly, while writing, I am constantly thinking of how the reviewers will look at my document. When appraising the papers, knowing that a peer will be checking my interpretations makes me feel compelled to consider the fine detail on methodology and statistical review. While writing the summaries and conclusions, I am more likely to base every statement on objective data from the literature. When submitting, I feel somewhat daunted and apprehensive, knowing that everything I have written will be strictly criticised. This is, emotionally, the hardest part.
When the reviewed email returns, I hastily go through the comments and begin to plan out how I can best answer any queries. Often, the comments are based around finding more detail from the papers: clarifying sample population numbers or intervention groups. Most of these are easily found from the original papers. Corrections in English and grammar are always well received, as a reader can very quickly make an opinion on the validity of a conclusion if the grammar is not correct!
In terms of timing, peer review is by far the most time-consuming part of the process. The Veterinary Evidence team have to firstly find a list of people that are capable of reviewing a submission in the relevant field of research. Then they need to find someone who is willing to review in the timeframe required. This is an understandably difficult task and patience must be exercised: when you submit a Knowledge Summary, you are excited and relieved that the writing is over, but now you must wait. Again, I would encourage the prospective writer to focus on the end goal. The value of review far outweighs the swift publication of flawed data for which the writer will be considered responsible!
We all feel a little daunted, so you are not alone. However, it’s important that the right sort of research gets out there and people hear about it, so if you believe in the value of what you want to publish, don’t give up. Sometimes the reviewer is wrong – after all you are the one who is closest to the paper, so stand firm if you need to!
Should authors also review papers? Why/why not?
As an author, I enjoy reading other articles. I also recognise the role specialists have in their subject matter and highly value their contribution to the peer-review process.
Absolutely. By going through the peer-review process, you learn a lot of things: how to write more objectively, how to appraise the evidence, and how to focus on the important points from your findings. If the busy authors can fit it into their schedules, then they should offer their services as reviewers. By taking the decision to write a Knowledge Summary, you are automatically signing up to a process where you look at scientific papers in a critical way, and consider statistical interpretation an important way of conveying the science into practice. In every paper I have published, I have become a go-to person in that scientific field: you can be sure that not many others have done this, which makes you useful to the practical community.
I cannot think of a good reason not to do so!
One anecdote: I published a review article on the evidence behind sand and recycled compost bedding for dairy cows. This was quite a large one, with over 50 papers referenced. The reviewers were thorough and very helpful in my interpretation of the overall summary. It was extremely satisfying when I heard from one of my colleagues in practice three months after publication: he said that one of his farmers was considering replacing his sand system with mattress bedding. This was contrary to all scientific evidence; outcomes for his cows would potentially be detrimental in terms of mastitis and lameness, opening up increased risks for poorer welfare and productivity. He told me that it was my Knowledge Summary that managed to convince the producer to continue with sand, seeing the full value of that medium. Knowing I had made a difference directly to the cows and to a fellow colleague made the whole process worth it.
I believe that authors should also review papers, and vice versa. However, it’s important that you don’t hold grudges from your experiences. One problem with authors reviewing is that they may come to a paper looking for holes if they feel resentment after their paper is rejected. Turning this the other way round, authors should be able to appreciate the huge amount of work and effort that has gone into a paper and show respect for that in their review. Obviously there are some papers that are not worthy, but as a profession we should be looking to support the authors so that they can publish relevant and useful research on a regular basis. Discussing your idea with others in your field is a good idea before you start writing anything!
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