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Peer review and training of young researchers

Horacio Vera

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Horacio Vera, a young researcher at INESAD, who had his paper peer reviewed in the process. He reflects on how the process supported his research capacity. This blog is part of the series on peer review for think tanks and it has been edited by Andrea Ordoñez as part of the Guest Editor initiative launched by On Think Tanks last year. If you are interested in being a Guest Editor please get in touch.]

Those college days when the greatest recognition you could achieve was a 10 in your research paper are gone. I am sure my colleagues starting their career as researchers in social topics have thought the same thing. Facing the challenges of becoming a researcher that can impact society is complex. I recognise, for instance, that I still have some trouble choosing research topics that are relevant for policies being implemented or developed. I think this portrays the weak relationship between policy making process and undergraduate studies curriculum in my home country, as it is surely the case in other places too. The promotion of evidence based policies is just in an initial phase in Bolivia, so it is difficult to understand the practical importance of research.

For that reason, I think that an early participation in peer review processes can bust the research skills gained during college and direct them to policy topics. Insights about the interests of policy makers as well as regional academic community are important towards the progress of one’s research. I think these important aspects, as others mentioned in the following paragraphs, are necessary to raise curiosity in research among young professionals.

Last year I had the opportunity to participate in a pilot to implement a peer review system between researchers associated to the Think Tank Initiative. The feedback we received helped us to strengthen the contribution of our paper in the following aspects:

  • It helped us to identify key contributions of the document and to discard some ideas that were not clear enough or did not have a strong argument. This is important in the early development of ideas since it prevents from fixating on stubborn arguments.
  • It gave us observations related to the style of academic writing, made recommendations about the structure of the document and how the idea being developed could be clearer. I can tell including these changes has worked well since our latest presentations of the paper seem to have awakened much more interest on the topic than the first ones.
  • We also received advice on the literature review. It is important to have advice on some topics like gender, empowerment, social exclusion, and others that are not exploited very often. So, this kind of advice is important to encourage researchers to explore new trends.

The contributions mentioned above encouraged us to continue with our research.

Nevertheless, peer review mechanisms do not do enough to help researchers participate in public debates on policy issues. Beyond the strictly academic contributions related to the strength of arguments or the clearness of the ideas being developed, I think a peer review system for think tanks should consider other aspects. Here, I identify some key points that could help us go further towards policy impact:

  • The reviewers should be chosen from a very diverse pool both regional and professionally speaking. Due to the immense amount of information now available, it is very important that reviewers can support literature review and that can be only done by someone who counts with the experience of analysing a specific area of knowledge in a given context. In a more ambitious perspective, the vertical interaction between novices and experts can help to raise those big ideas that ride ambitious projects. As a beginner you have an expectation of what your contribution in your field of study could be. Nevertheless, having an aspiration is not equivalent to knowing how to actually get there. In this regard, being part of a network that includes experienced researchers can reinforce ideas that can in fact be the source of your work ten years from now.
  • It is important to understand the work of think tanks in developing countries as a process that goes from the selection of the research problem to the implementation of policy advice. For this reason, peer review has to take care of every stage. Between the centres that were part the peer review pilot, it has been shown that peer review is most demanded for working papers, book chapters and policy briefs. Nevertheless, the ways in which people consume information are much more miscellaneous. You cannot expect people to read 200 hundred pages of your work; but it is more likely that they take a look at infographics that summarize the main points. In fact, the dissimilarity of experience in communication and positioning strategies among think tanks could be used as an asset in this network. The more knowledgeable centres can give valuable advice to the less so that the process reinforces not only quality but reach as well.
  • One of these stages, that I find urgently useful, is advice on communication. Technical language can make ideas simpler and clearer for people with some sort of knowledge even though it is not so helpful increasing their popularity. That is why, it is important the opinion of communication professionals in the review process, so that handier products can be introduced to both public opinion leaders and policy makers.

I would like to conclude by stressing that the most of the part of engaging in policy driven research certainly needs more than it is already written in books. I think it can be compared with learning how to manage a firm. There are personal relationships to be taken into account, technologic specificities of the process, and other know-how intensive activities that probably one does not have the slightest idea about.

That is why I encourage young researchers like me to begin as soon as they can in this practice. The more ideas we share, the more ideas we can get.

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