Grad Students: Next Generation of Peer Reviewers

03Apr09

I ran across a paper, “Walbot, V. Are we training put bulls to review our manuscripts? J Biol. 2009.” while browsing erv. Her response was just a bit of off the cuff defense of her admittedly adorable pitbull. But I think that the paper deserves at least a bit more actual consideration. Peer review, paper writing and the concepts therein occupy a good deal of my time. I love writing papers, I tend to be fairly ambitious about them, and on the other end I’m in more than my fair share of journal clubs and the like. I consider it all to be one component of “professional development”.

The paper is a discussion – a decent one at that – about how we incorporate papers into the education of our graduate students. Not just the “classics”, flawless papers that have withstood the test of time and are essentially gold standard, but papers with flaws – minor or not minor, from a number of different journals. Basically, getting a feel for the actual literature, and how papers that aren’t paragons of research virtue might still contribute to the body of research.

Honestly, I think my program does a very good job at this. We read a massive amount of literature as part of our coursework, including at least one class of entirely readings. Much of it is good, but much of it is hard to understand, very specific, or occasionally flawed. Between that and myriad journal clubs, we get exposed to our fair share of bad papers. We talk about their flaws, how they might have still gotten into a good (or bad) journal, and what we as future reviewers might have done to help. If anything, I think we train students to be a touch *too* aggressive, ripping apart anything but a singularly magnificent paper, and missing some of the important contributions something might make, even if we really didn’t like their control sampling scheme. But faculty have done their level best to dampen this tendency somewhat.

The one point that the author touches on that I think could need work everywhere is discussions of what is a “publishable unit”. Every student knows a single cohort study might spawn anything from 1 to a career worth of papers, but how exactly one goes from data to analysis to multiple papers (or a single paper) is left largely to the intuition of the student. I like the idea of going over a grad student’s work as a group, and discussing where logical dividing lines between papers exist within the larger body.

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