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Teaching peer review

Peer review is the horror of many a PhD student who submits his or her first paper. Seeing their colleagues’ frustrations and hearing about impossible reviews nurtures a fear that painstaking work will be crushed by that one email from the editor. Therefore, a PhD’s first submission shouldn’t be the first time they come in contact with the peer review system.

peer review

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Students will only get acquainted with peer review if it’s a topic in the lab. This has two sides: reviews we get, and reviews we write.

Learning to deal with the reviews we get

One of the most important things about reviews is to talk about what they (can) do to you. If you haven’t cried your own tears, I am sure you know someone who has. Reviews can be devastating. So, it’s helpful to talk about how one can deal.

  • Read it once. If it makes you choke, save it, and leave it for three days until you go back to it. As Bradley Voytek puts it in his lab philosophy: You are not your science. You are not your science. You are not your science.
  • Attack the review point by point: brake it down into its single points. If the reviewer did not structure his points well, do it yourself. Isolate each single point that requires some action. This reduces the overwhelm of the many points that seem to be wrong with the paper.
  • For each point, assess whether and how you can address it.
  • Start with one point. Then work yourself through the list.

There appears to be a trend for editorial decisions to become more dramatic. What used to be a major revision is now often a reject with permission to resubmit. And what used to be categorized as a minor revision is now often a major one. If you’ve written a number of papers, you don’t even notice these things anymore. But first timers do. Reject feels like a killer to them. So they should learn from their supervisor that the gravity of a decision letter can only be assessed by checking whether what the reviewers want can be fulfilled (or rebutted) or not.

Learning to write reviews

It helps a bunch to have seen other reviews and to have written some reviews to be able to put one’s own reviews in perspective.

Besides, being able to give scientific criticism in an adequate manner should be one of the major aims of scientific teaching.

There are two approaches I take in my lab: discussing reviews we get ourselves, and writing reviews.

Discuss the incoming: reviews we get

There are several things to learn from discussing reviews of the lab’s papers.

  • Content: Learning to expect what reviewers want to know. This is important when writing a paper: we try to foresee what may be critical points, and answer them before the question comes up. But it’s just as important for learning to write reviews: What kind of questions appear often? What do other reviewers look for? How detailed are they in their criticism?
  • Style: I can’t stress the style issue enough. All those reviewers who yell at us must have grown up somewhere. Make your lab a place that brings up a different kind. You can discuss positive examples — reviews that are clear, respectful, concise and precise. And contrast them with negative examples — reviews that are difficult to understand, lack respect, are lengthy, and don’t tell you what the reviewer wants changed.

Discuss the outgoing: reviews we write

I once read the suggestion that all reviews should be done by PhD students, because they know what they are doing, know the latest literature, and are motivated. I guess it would be rather demotivating if the boss always passed everything down. But more importantly, PhDs should not be left alone with their reviews.

I ask students to write their first review in the second year. For the first few, I do the entire review in parallel. I read their review draft and discuss points that were difficult or things that I will add that they didn’t see. Of course, all the style points are also part of the discussion. Many journals let you enter the student’s name in a designated field. If they don’t, it’s good style to acknowledge the student in the note to the editor.

When a student has more experience, both in her scientific field and with writing reviews, I interfere less with their work. They can then decide themselves whether you should read the paper and help them, and discuss points they are insecure about.

And finally, one great advantage when students write their reviews is that they can read what the other reviewers said. In my experience, this is a really important thing. It feels great to detect your own points in someone else’s review, too. It feels great to see that you did a better, more thorough job than other reviewers. These experiences build confidence.

If you have thoughts to share, or links to good resources to teach peer review, do leave a comment!


There are many resources that deal with peer review. These are a good start for students before they write their own:

Benos, D. J., Kirk, K. L., & Hall, J. E. (2003). How to review a paper. AJP: Advances in Physiology Education, 27(2), 47–52. http://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00057.2002

Some publishers have posts on how to do peer review, for instance BioMed Central (link leads to first of three posts) and PeerJ.

Jeff Leek has published his thoughts on Github.

And I really like Bradley Voytek’s lab philosophy. It’s not about peer review. But the flair of it is exactly what will make you confident even when you get smacked on the head by one.

Photo credit: Gratisography.com


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].
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4 ways to continually improve your team’s scientific writing skills

Writing well is a continuous challenge. It’s even more difficult when writing in a non-native language. Although I’ve been writing papers for more than 10 years, I am still learning how to write better with every paper I read or write. I figure, there’s all the more to teach the students I work with.

improve writing

Many students have great difficulties with putting their thoughts on paper. Writing has many pitfalls. Grammar can be complex, especially when writing in a foreign language. But it’s just as hard to structure the logic of sentences, paragraphs, and an entire paper.

Given that papers are what the world sees of our work, scientific writing is our bread and butter: we’d like our papers to be perfect. As the group head, we have to do our best to teach our students well.

I’ve found that many writers make similar mistakes. And I’ve found that telling them once or twice doesn’t usually do the trick of making sure these mistakes don’t show up in their future writing. This has led me to prioritize writing in my group by implementing regular lessons on different aspects of writing in our group meetings.

Making writing a priority in your lab

#1: Weekly grammar lesson

For some time, we had a 3-5 minute lesson in the group’s weekly meeting. Each week, a different group member prepared the lesson. In the beginning, we used a book that described common grammar and word choice mistakes in short, comprehensive chapters. Later, we picked questions that came up during reading or writing; the person responsible researched the solution to our question by searching on the internet, or by asking a native speaker.

#2: Weekly sentence analysis

Another great way to learn about writing well is to discuss bad sentences. There is an abundance of bad sentences in published papers. Even the table of contents summaries of Science Magazine have some gruesome grammar mistakes. It’s actually quite fun to try and spot them, and we’ve often had a good laugh about what the sentence did say, compared to what it was supposedly intended to say.

An even better source of bad sentences are the writings of our own group. Whenever I write or revise, I copy sentences (including my own) with typical errors for the next group meeting.

With each sentence, we first let everyone take a shot at what’s wrong. We then discuss why it’s wrong, and how the sentence could have been written better.

Discussing bad sentences lets us go beyond just word use and grammar mistakes, and we look at sentence clarity, logic, word order, etc. One can even look at entire paragraphs, though then 3-5 minutes won’t do it.

As a result of our writing-better-sentences practice, I now often get better sentences from the start when I revise papers we write in the group. And when there are errors, I just have to give a short reminder of what’s wrong.

#3: Make an assessment of writing style part of your journal club

Sometimes, you read a paper that just reads well. It’s worth losing a few words about it when the paper is discussed in the journal club. Ask the presenting student to pinpoint what is so good about the writing. Rather than looking at details in grammar and sentences, the points raised when talking about well-written papers usually focus on the large-scale organization of the paper: the flow of logic; the way the discussion picks up the topics that the introduction raised; the order of topics in methods and results; clarity of writing; organization of figures; etc.

Making writing style a topic in the group meetings emphasizes that a well-written paper can shed very positive light on a research group. It encourages team members to make improving their writing a goal for themselves.

#4: Discuss reviews of your group’s papers

Discussing peer reviews is probably the highest level view on writing you can have with your team. Seeing reviews will prepare more junior scientists like new PhDs for what to expect when they submit their work. They get to know the tone of reviews and learn to distinguish harmless from serious criticism. As a consequence, they learn to anticipate which parts of their own paper may be prone to criticism, so that they can address potentially difficult parts of their study accordingly already in their first draft.

There’s a lot to learn for every PhD student, and still for many Postdocs. Even as experienced writers, we can still improve. Showing that writing is a priority, and having short but regular writing lessons in your group, can boost learning.

How do you improve writing in your group? Comments, tips, and experiences are welcome!


Some books I’ve found useful in learning how to write better:

Bugs in Writing, Revised Edition: A Guide to Debugging Your Prose by Lyn Dupre: short chapters that each focus on a common mistake in English writing. Written by an editor of scientific papers. Great as a start for weekly “writing better” lessons.

The Reader’s Brain by Yellowlees Douglas: A book that takes a close look at each hierarchical level of a paper: sentence parts, sentences, paragraphs, paper as a whole. Comes from a neuroscientific perspective and bases writing tips on how people read. A bit too much of that, for my taste. But the writing tips are really good. It also features an appendix of “everything you need to know about English grammar”.

Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded by Joshua Schimel: Focuses on structuring your paper. The credo is: your paper is a story. For instance, it has great examples for how to start a paper.

The Elements of Style by E.B. White & William Strunk: a classic of English grammar and writing. Newer texts criticize this book here and there, but by many it’s considered the gold standard. It’s more compact that Bugs in Writing, but could also serve as the basis for weekly lessons. If you buy it, do not be surprised by its size: it’ll fit in your pants’ back pocket. (No, this doesn’t mean that there’s little in it. It’s small print.)

Photo credit: Stocksnap.io


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].