Close

Preprint peer review enhances undergraduate biology students’ disciplinary literacy and sense of belonging in STEM

Josie L. Otto, Gary S McDowell, Meena M. Balgopal, Rebeccah S Lijek

Posted on: 14 December 2022

Preprint posted on 7 October 2022

Article now published in Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education at http://dx.doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.00053-23

Setting (and teaching) the right example at the right time: peer review classes at undergraduate level lead to increased scientific literacy and a heightened sense of belonging to the biological community.

Selected by Reinier Prosee, Kanika Khanna, Giuliana Clemente, Jonny Coates

Students in a peer review class.

Background:

In most science curriculums, much time and effort is spent on teaching students the practical nature of experimental research. Though this provides important insights into the life of a scientist, it does not address a key aspect of the scientific process: how to communicate new findings through science publishing and peer review. Teaching students, already at the undergraduate level, about peer review and science publishing could help in providing a fuller, and more realistic picture of what it is to be a scientist.

With this in mind, the researchers behind this preprint devised two different undergraduate modules on peer review, taught by the same instructor, at the gender-diverse, women’s college Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, USA. One module was a 14-week seminar course, whereas the other was much smaller and embedded within a disciplinary biology course (vaccinology). Both quantitative and qualitative approaches were included to measure their success. The quantitative method included three tools that can be used to assess the quality of peer review objectively. The qualitative method, instead, focused on several variables – knowledge, practice, the value of practice, professional identity, and personal identity – that were assessed by the use and evaluation of weekly reflection journals.

Key Findings:

Peer review classes led to a measurable increase in peer review ability

Students in both the stand-alone as well as the embedded peer review module were tested for their peer review ability after a few different events. For the stand-alone course, the first two of these were individual review exercises, followed by a group exercise and another individual task. The embedded module only lacked the last individual exercise. Regardless of the measuring tool used, both the students in the stand-alone and embedded course showed significant increases in their peer review ability toward the end of the course. Interestingly, the stand-alone course students showed a step-wise increase, whereas for those in the embedded course the biggest increase was seen after the group exercise. Of note, all students scored between 80-97% of the total maximum score (regardless of the tool used) on a measure that was designed for expert reviewers, not students.

Peer review classes led to an improved perception of the student’s own scientific literacy

Not only could the researchers behind this preprint show that the undergraduate students improved their peer review ability, but – importantly – they also found that the students noticed this themselves. By examining the weekly reflection journals, it was clear that the students from both modules grew in confidence with regard to the peer review process. Especially reading, critiquing, and discussing reviews from peers led to a heightened sense of scientific literacy. This was evident when students opted to publish their reviews on public forums, suggesting their confidence in them.

Increased science literacy helps students to gain a sense of belonging in both the academic and professional space

At the beginning of this study, some of the students reported that although they felt comfortable within the confines of the classroom, this was much less the case in a wider, professional space. Through interactions and discussions with classmates, all enrolled students felt a stronger sense of belonging to the academic community towards the end of the peer review courses. The students were also encouraged to present their reviews to the authors and interact with them. This not only led to an increased sense of belonging within the academic space but also the wider professional space.

Why we picked this preprint

One thing we haven’t mentioned yet, but which piqued our interest (!), is that preprints were used for the peer review exercises. The authors argue that in contrast to the finalized published articles, preprints show the students a more realistic side of doing science: a situation in which things are constant work-in-progress and negative and inconsistent results are very common. Indeed, reporting negative results is more encouraged within the preprint space as can nicely be illustrated by the ongoing ASAPBio competition looking for the best preprints with negative/null or inconclusive results as the main finding.

The reported result that helping students increase their scientific literacy leads to a stronger sense of belonging and identity formation also resonated with us. It’s at the core of what we try to achieve here at preLights; creating a sense of community. In our own discussion about this preprint, we noted down that peer review classes could be the perfect antidote for the imposter syndrome often experienced by (young) researchers. What we also noted is that the biggest improvement in peer review ability was seen after the group exercises. Again, this stresses the importance of community building and providing researchers with the opportunity to learn from each other.

Interestingly, the authors of the preprint point out that the three tools they used to measure peer review ability all put a lot of emphasis on ‘tone’. Currently, it is quite common that reviewers are rather blunt, if not just rude and insulting, in their reviews. This is in sharp contrast with what was reported in this preprint: all the reviews prepared by the students were very constructive, and professional, and tended to point out strengths rather than (only) weaknesses. Although you cannot assume this would be true for all undergraduate student’ reviews, this observation does give one hope that setting the tone right at an early stage can help to ensure constructive and fair peer review in the future.

Questions for the authors

  • Do you think it would be feasible for all universities to introduce a whole peer review module? Could they perhaps only offer the embedded module and/or the group peer review exercise which seemed to be the most helpful?
  • How much of a role does the instructor play in the outcome of these peer review classes? How can the instructor from this study share his/her/their teaching methods?
  • How could the peer review course be adapted for non-science students to help them understand the scientific method/role of peer review?

Tags: peer review, scientific communication, scientific identity, scientific literacy, teaching

doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/prelights.33253

Read preprint (No Ratings Yet)

Author's response

Rebeccah Lijek shared

Do you think it would be feasible for all universities to introduce a whole peer review module? Could they perhaps only offer the embedded module and/or the group peer review exercise which seemed to be the most helpful?

We are studying feasibility in this ongoing project, investigating how well the outcomes port to different instructors, educational settings, and student populations. We’re also looking into what sort of support instructors would need to implement this curriculum. I expect that the feasibility will vary from institution to institution and that it will be easier to embed the module (and/or group review activities) into a pre-existing class than it will be for instructors to offer a new semester-long course on peer review.

How much of a role does the instructor play in the outcome of these peer review classes? How can the instructor from this study share his/her/their teaching methods?

Like with all classes, the instructor’s knowledge, confidence, and enthusiasm for the material can greatly impact students’ learning outcomes. We are interested in creating a community of instructors who are experimenting with peer review activities so that they can informally exchange ideas and teaching tips. Anyone who is interested in learning more about this community-building effort and/or who wants to stay in touch about this topic is encouraged to complete this short poll: https://tinyurl.com/POLL-PreprintReview.

How could the peer review course be adapted for non-science students to help them understand the scientific method/role of peer review?

Great question! We are experimenting with offering units of this curriculum to first-year undergraduates, many of whom are not yet sure if they want to major in the sciences. Unit 1 in particular – where students learn about the basics of science publishing and the peer review process – might be a good fit for this student population.

Have your say

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up to customise the site to your preferences and to receive alerts

Register here

Also in the scientific communication and education category:

Experts fail to reliably detect AI-generated histological data

Jan Hartung, Stefanie Reuter, Vera Anna Kulow, et al.

Selected by 17 May 2024

Reinier Prosee

Scientific Communication and Education

Scientific civility and academic performance

Emma Camacho, Quigly Dragotakes, Isabella Hartshorn, et al.

Selected by 15 May 2024

Ivan Mikicic

Scientific Communication and Education

Finding the right words to evaluate research: An empirical appraisal of eLife’s assessment vocabulary

Tom E. Hardwicke, Sarah R. Schiavone, Beth Clarke, et al.

Selected by 13 May 2024

Benjamin Dominik Maier

Scientific Communication and Education
Close