The Untold Journey of a Reviewer

in Poli-Scie/Sci-Pourri by

Editor’s note: For a scientist, publishing papers is the path to progress. The journey of publishing begins with planning meticulous experiments and ends with the article getting fair reviews and final acceptance in a journal. What would it be like to sit on the other side of the table and become a reviewer? In this article, Smita Salian Mehta gives detailed tips and guidelines to become a reviewer and get the proverbial foot in the door of the reviewing world- Shayu Deshpande

We all have PIs, colleagues, and friends who review papers regularly, but how a postdoc can climb through the barriers to become a reviewer is not taught or widely publicized. How to carve the path through unknown obstacles, whom to approach and how to proceed are few questions that I have tried to tackle below. These are few pointers from my personal journey when I was on the cusp of wanting to be a reviewer myself. Initially, having done quite a few reviews unofficially, I thought it would be rather simple. However, it was not!

I did approach the “dependable” people, only to be turned away with statements like, “You are just a postdoc”. There was no denying that, but I also was a person with a sound scientific aptitude and prided myself on being perseverant. So I decided to venture out all by myself. Below are some quintessential facts, my view of bare essentials that I discovered during this journey.

(Inset image: Shayu Deshpande)

Why become a reviewer?

The best way to improve scientific knowledge and polish one’s aptitude for rational thinking is by reviewing papers. A simple process that helps to evaluate our own work more critically. By learning to ask questions we also become proficient at finding answers to our own experiments. Reviewing papers is also very important when applying for permanent residency in the US or for a faculty position.

Who can be a reviewer?

Any graduate or postdoc can be a peer reviewer. All you need is to have at least one paper in a peer-reviewed journal. You must be scientifically inclined, and have a broad interest in research. Thumb rule: you are never under qualified until you choose to think you are. It is not just the “how” but also about the “why” behind the research, that makes you seek answers and will make you an excellent reviewer.

Which journals to approach?

Journals within your area of expertise are great and the ones with a broad general scope. Thumb rule: if you are a neurobiologist you can target neurobiology, molecular biology, journals that publish articles with in-vitro and in-vivo experiments or plain life sciences. The chances of becoming a reviewer in low impact journals are greater than for high impact journals. Impact factor does not matter as long as it is a peer-reviewed journal.

Whom to approach?

(inset image: from Pexels)
  1. PI or Mentor:  ask your PI or mentor to forward papers directly via editors. It should come from the journal office to you directly and should not be a forwarded email. For green card applicants, it is especially important to keep emails of invitations and acknowledgments from journals as proof of being a reviewer. It is not enough to save just the invitations, proof of having reviewed an article is valid only with a complete set of emails consisting of invitation, submission of the completed review and a thank you note from the journal.
  2. Collaborators: if the first step fails, approach collaborators. Many academic professors work on editorial boards and are good resources.
  3. Peers: Many of your friends/colleagues unknown to your knowledge may be involved in some capacity (as reviewers or editors) with journals. So ask for help. Thumb rule: Not everyone is helpful, but don’t lose hope. You can approach journals on your own, which will likely improve your chances of success.
  4. Journals: (i) Identify journals– do not target very high impact journals. They are difficult but not impossible to approach. Thumb rule: Target journals with impact factors between 2-5, journals where good science and good reviewing are appreciated and sought. (ii) Approach the editor in chief (EIC) and associate editors. Try to create a login on journal websites or journal platforms such as Elsevier. When creating a login if asked about reviewing or interest in becoming a reviewer, say yes and indicate general expertise (example molecular biology, western blots, transfection, etc.). Also, select all the areas pertaining to your major expertise. Creating such logins/profiles before approaching the EIC is better and compels many to consider you more seriously. Since most editors, if they agree, would eventually send you links to create profiles, doing so beforehand reduces your time to reach your goal. Additionally, editors don’t have to search for your contact and expertise area. Thumb rule: use direct message service from journal website for contacting journals and editors or search the email addresses of the EIC via Google. The harder you work the better chances you have.

How to follow-up?

Make a list of all the journals you have applied or approached. The numbers can be quite high. To get yourself organized, in your list place a tick mark when sending an email, creating logins and also if you have received a reply from the journals. Most would send a reply in the affirmative, but never end up sending any papers. Send reminder emails, asking them to send you papers in your field. Remind them that you are waiting and have your expertise to offer. Thumb rule: reminders don’t hurt, so don’t be shy. Be perseverant because that is the key to success.

What to write in the email?

A few lines describing who you are, where you work, what you are currently pursuing and the number of papers you have published. If you are a graduate student then write about papers under review or in preparation. Tell them about your interest in science and how this opportunity would help you grow. Thumb rule: KISS (keep it simple and sweet).

(inset infographics by Shayu Deshpande, bullet point thumb image taken from Pixabay,modified by Shayu Deshpande)

When you finally get a paper to review, do a good job, and return it back well within time. Editors and journals really like such reviewers and often send them more papers. All this may seem tough, but when you do everything yourself your confidence will show in your resume. In the end, this is a learning experience and will make you grow scientifically. It is also a chance to contribute back to the scientific community.

This is Smita’s personal experience and this approach worked wonderfully well for her. She became a reviewer for 10 different journals in just over two months. “Be persistent and never give up, neither on your dreams nor your ambitions” is Smita’s final piece of advice.

About the author

Smita Salian-Mehta is currently a senior scientist at Abbvie (Chicago). She finished her Masters in Microbiology and followed it up with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry (specialization in reproductive toxicology) from National Institute for research in Reproductive health (ICMR) Mumbai. She moved to a postdoctoral position in neuroendocrinology at the  University of Colorado before joining Abbvie in 2015. Smita loves to write fictional stories especially fan fiction and has an ardent fan following that eagerly waits for her next stories.



Editorial team

1st Editor: Shayu Deshpande pursued her Ph.D. at IISc and is doing exciting research in myeloma in the US.  When not in the lab she enjoys singing classical music, reading books, meeting her friends and playing with her kids.




2nd EditorRoopsha Sengupta is a freelance manuscript editor and is trying to break into a suitable scientific editing and writing role. She did her Ph.D. in the Institute of Molecular Pathology, Vienna and postdoctoral research at the University of Cambridge UK, specializing in the field of Epigenetics. Besides science and words, she enjoys spending time with children, doodling, and singing.



Cover image background from Unsplash and illustrated by Roopsha Sengupta ; inset image and infographic by Shayu Deshpande. Other image sources are mentioned with the images.

Blog design

Shayu Deshpande

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

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