A mere month ago, I was a humble researcher with an amazingly cool lab. But this month, things are different. I’ve been named a Reviewing Editor at a society journal. And that’s sort of a big deal for academic folks. So let me dust off a bit of confetti from the ticker tape parade I forced the lab to have for me and share some pointers on how to get those editorial appointments that mean so much for career advancement and staying at the top of your field.


My lab’s party for me looked like this

1. Misunderstand Your Adviser:* One of my early advisers said “never turn down a review.” He reasoned that as a trainee, I had a chance to meet people who were having their first shot at serving on editorial boards and that they would hopefully continue to think of me for turning in solid, timely reviews. I accepted a lot of reviews from lower impact journals, as a way to hone my reviewing style into something that the journals liked and authors seemed to appreciate.

*I say “misunderstand your advisor” because my adviser later claimed this was horrible advice and disavowed all knowledge of it. But only one of us is a Reviewing Editor, so let’s just pretend it was real advice because it worked.

2. Stay In Your Lane: I’ve gotten some requests to review manuscripts with a drug or tool I use in a totally unfamiliar system. After reading the abstract (usually provided along with the request to review), I wrote back that I won’t be the most knowledgeable about all the working parts, but I’d be happy to share my critique of my area of expertise. Owning up to my limitations seemed to go a long way towards helping Reviewing Editors get to know me and feel comfortable having me turn in reviews that they could balance out with other experts. It also helped me broaden my expertise as I grew accustomed to new systems.

3. Be Nice: Getting reviews back is rough. Say things nicely. Like you would want someone to say to you. And then say things that are consistent with the scores you turn into the editors. It saves tired editor from trying to fill in gaps. I have a comparable rejection rate to other reviewers, but I think I have distinguished myself in that I always try hard to see the value in a manuscript. I start my first paragraph summarizing what has been done and why it is important. And I believe what I’m saying. I think that people are trying hard to do good work and if I don’t see the value in their model/question, I’ll do more background reading.

4. Review What’s in Front of You: One of the worst author experiences I had as an author was when we submitted a grueling paper on molecules and mechanisms and got a reviewer telling us we should test our hypothesis in a stroke model. Not hypothetically as a future direction…they wanted actual data. Which would have been an extra 2 years of work and $100,000. I responded to all the other comments and when I got to that one, I just wrote “No. This is absurd and untenable.” *mic drop* I probably should have gotten out the thesaurus and found word other than “absurd,” but the editor agreed and the paper got in.

While I would not recommend this kind of show down, I’d like to think I am keenly aware that my job as a reviewer is not to show folks how smart I am.

My job as a reviewer is to

  • critique what authors turn in,
  • make sure I can see what they are showing me
  • evaluate the interpretation,
  • do my best to ensure everything is ethical
  • ensure that the journal I’m reviewing for is the right audience
  • fill in some gaps on relevant literature.

That’s it. If you don’t hit the standards for innovation, mechanism and appeal for the journal, you will be getting the dreaded “better suited for a specialized journal” email. Sorry/not sorry.

5. Know the Editors: Many societies give editorial board members fancy ribbons for their badges and what not. I made a habit of knowing who was sending me reviews, going to their talks and introducing myself. I’d thank them for the opportunity to review or offer to review if they hadn’t asked me but I read the journal consistently. I’d follow up with an email welcoming any feedback they had. And I meant it. I really wanted to know if I was doing okay.

Additional protip: I use to wonder why no one at meetings who was on the editorial boards was saying “hi” to me. Here’s the truth. Once you hit 45, you have the vision of a naked mole rat. Seriously. I can’t see anything, much less your face at a conference.  Touching base once a year is helpful without being needy.

6. Big Brother is Watching You: Yes, editors have a database. Yes, you’re in it. It has your expertise, turn around time and a rating on the quality of your reviews. Turn in your stuff on time. Don’t be mean.

I hope this helps. Happy reviewing!

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1 Comment

Solid advice. If you aren’t getting offered reviews and are early career. Ask your mentor to shift a paper s/he is requested to review to you to take the first pass, see if you can implement the advice above, and get critique on how you did. Depending on career stage I will: 1) indicate it was a joint review with a mentee and provide the name when I return it, or if masked let the editorial staff know who I co-reviewed with; or 2) if more experienced or we have done this exercise together successfully a few times, I will decline the review and suggest my mentee. Ask – if the topic is on point for your expertise your mentor may not have considered this approach and will likely be most willing if you are fast with the first draft.

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