Clinicians gain confidence to engage with research by becoming involved in peer review

Looking to engage with research, develop your critical appraisal skills and sharpen your own writing? If you have academic research training, consider becoming involved in peer review.

In my role as Researcher in Residence at Imperial College London, I support clinical NMAHPPs (nurses, midwives, allied health professionals, healthcare scientists, pharmacy staff and psychologists) to develop careers in research. As part of this, I have begun recommending midwives with Masters or PhDs as peer reviewers, when I am asked to review an article that I know fits their clinical or methodological areas of interest. I also offer support through this process. This fairly simple activity seems to have really hit a chord with clinical midwives who are looking to become more research-active, so I want to share it with others who are supporting clinicians to engage with research.

How the peer review process works

First, let’s de-mystify how people become involved in peer review activity. When you submit an article for publication, this is all done on-line. As part of this process, you enter your personal details, including (this is important!) your areas of interest and expertise. Even if your article is not accepted for publication, your details are retained on the journal’s database. When an assistant editor does a search for peer reviewers with an interest in, say, ‘breastfeeding,’ if you have listed this as one of your areas of interest/expertise, your details will come up in the search results. They are likely to ask the ‘big names’ first, people who have published a lot in this area. But top academics get many more peer review applications than they can accept. So, eventually, you will get asked to peer review in your area. Of course, if you have published as well, this will happen sooner.

For example, in 2012 I submitted a conference report to the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (BJOG) because I thought people should know about the exciting, international changes that were beginning to happen around the way breech births were managed. It was rejected within 24 hours (ouch!). But soon, I started being asked to review articles in this area – probably due to very few other people listing ‘breech presentation’ as their area of interest. BJOG has still never accepted one of my academic articles, but by 2016, I was awarded a certificate as one of their top 50 reviewers! In 2018, I was rated a top 1% reviewer in Clinical Medicine by Publons peer review tracker, part of Web of Science. The insight I have gained into the publication process through peer review has been invaluable.

The other way you may get asked to peer review is because someone who is declining to peer review has nominated you as an alternative. Usually, senior academics will nominate more junior academics. This is what I have been doing for clinical midwives who hold at least a Masters at Imperial, provided I know their areas of interest. Again, if you accept the invitation, your details will be in the system, and you will likely receive future invitations.

You can also write to the editor of a journal you are interested in, with your CV, and offer to do peer review.

Benefits of doing peer review

Once they finish a further degree, clinicians often start to feel detached from the academic research world. Doing peer review is one way to stay engaged and be inspired by others’ work. It helps you develop critical appraisal skills. You observe how successful articles are structured, and why, until it becomes second-nature when you begin to plan your own work. You gain exposure to other methods and methodologies being used to answer research questions in your field. And you begin to see gaps in knowledge or need for further research, which may help you define a project you would like to pursue yourself.

Midwife in training Jacana Bresson

If your professional aims include applying for fellowship or research funding, peer review activity is regarded favourably on your CV. You can automatically upload your peer review confirmation e-mail to the Publons website, just by forwarding it. And you can then simply list your public peer review profile on your CV – here’s my Web of Science profile, including peer review.

Personally, I also enjoy the feeling that I am influencing what gets published and becomes part of our evidence base. For example, I have reviewed innumerable articles which either directly concern midwifery practice or have the potentially to significantly impact it, yet the research team does not include a midwife. I have consistently given the feedback that, in the future, it should; and that this should be acknowledged as a limitation in the discussion. By remaining present in the sphere of peer review, midwives and NMAHPPs can make a genuine difference.

Support with this process

For NMAHPPs working at Imperial, I can help you become involved in peer review for the journals you read. If you would find it helpful, I can support you to complete the review, so that you feel confident returning your critical appraisal. The involvement of another person needs to be declared to the editor, as the peer review process is otherwise confidential, but this is acceptable when less experienced reviewers are receiving support.

Visit my Imperial College London People page to contact me and book time for 1:1 support.