The peer-review process does for science what the checks and balances system is supposed to do for American government.
Irina Novikova, an associate professor in William & Mary’s Department of Physics, was recently honored for her contributions to the peer-review process. Novikova was named an Outstanding Referee for 2016 by the editors of the journals of the American Physical Society (APS). She is the most recent of William & Mary’s physicists to be named an Outstanding Referee. Henry Krakauer won the honor in 2009, as did Marc Sher in 2008.
Novikova has been a referee for more than 10 years, beginning when she was a graduate student. She is active in each role in the peer-review process. In addition to being a referee, she also is an editor of the journal Optics Letters and she is an author, writing papers on her own research in the field of AMO— atomic, molecular and optical physics.
“I send in my papers for peer review as a scientist. I am reviewing other people’s papers. I’m also a topical editor for the Optics Letters journal, which means I receive the comments from the reviewers and have to make a decision about the paper. My experience as an editor makes me a better reviewer.”
Referees are the “peers” in peer review. Also known as reviewers, they are selected by editors for their familiarity with the topic of the paper.
“A referee plays a really important role in our publishing process,” Novikova said, “because basically no results in science are validated unless they go through peer review.”
The process goes like this: A scientist writes a summation of his or her work and sends it to a journal. The journal editors can reject the manuscript outright, or continue to work with it.
“The manuscript is sent by the editors to another specialist in the area,” Novikova explained. “It’s an independent check, a chance for other scientists to say if the work is correct.”
An editor may ask one, two or three scientists to look at a manuscript, depending on the journal and the paper, Novikova explained. The reviewers look over the paper and give a set of written comments back to the editor.
“As a reviewer, you could say that the paper is correct—or maybe that it is correct, but that some things are not properly written,” Novikova said. “Or you say that you’re not sure that all of the results are right.
“Sometimes, you say, ‘I don’t think the author understands what they are doing,’ so this paper shouldn’t be published,” she continued. “Or sometimes, I’ll say yeah, there’s nothing wrong with this paper, but it’s not interesting enough. There’s nothing new or innovative here for this particular journal.”
“Our editors select the honorees based on the quality, number, and timeliness of their reports, without regard for membership in the APS, country of origin or field of research,” the APS writes in a section of its web page devoted to its Outstanding Referees Program.
APS Journals publishes more than a dozen peer-reviewed titles, including its flagship journal, Physical Review Letters. Around 60,000 physicists are active APS referees. Novikova is one of the 146 Outstanding Referees honored for 2016.
Novikova said it’s important for reviewers to be open minded in their reading and professional and polite in writing their comments. She said her triple editor/reviewer/author participation in the process has given her an appreciation for the referees’ contributions.
“It’s an enormous service for the authors, because somebody else can look at the paper and point out ways to make it better,” she said. When she gets reviewer comments back on one of her own papers, it sometimes takes a while to get over the sting of criticism.
“I get my share of negative, or at least not-exactly-positive reviews, and at first you’re really angry about it,” she said. “But you cool down and you go back and look at it. And you say, yeah, the reviewers are right.”