No, but you should do it anyway.
There’s an awful lot of impassioned discourse out there around our peer-review system – much of it related to the fact that publishers usually don’t pay reviewers. While for many academics reviewing is part of the service component of a job, for others (like most graduate students and postdocs) it’s a volunteer activity. So why do it?
The invention of services that track and certify your reviewing history, like Publons, suggests that having reviewed papers might carry some weight on your CV as you build a portfolio of scholarly contributions. Well, reviewing (when done well) is a scholarly contribution; but I don’t think you should count on it to strengthen your CV. I’ve been part of a lot of CV assessments over the years – for grant panels, hiring committees, tenure assessments, you name it. I’ve never seen someone’s peer-review record receive any serious discussion; and in a hiring context, I’ve never seen it come up at all. Service defined more broadly does, but in my experience peer-review just isn’t seen as the kind of service that can lead to one candidate being preferred over another.
If volunteering to peer-review doesn’t strengthen your CV, should you give it a pass? After all, there are plenty of things you can do with your time that do strengthen a CV. Passing on peer-review would be a mistake, though. There are benefits to peer-reviewing; they just aren’t (directly) to do with your CV. I’ll suggest four ways that reviewing can help you build a scholarly career.
First, reviewing gives you an early look at some of the very freshest work in your field
You’ll read and think carefully about new hypotheses, new methods, new data, and new interpretations – and this can only strengthen your own approach to your work. Yes, preprinting in some disciplines has reduced this advantage, as many manuscripts are public before they enter the peer-review system; but until preprinting becomes universal there will be value in early exposure to your colleagues’ most recent progress.
Second, reviewing is a chance to engage deeply and critically (but constructively!) with writing
You’ll think carefully about the way the authors presented their work: their choice of content, their organization, their writing style, their designs for figures and tables. You’ll find good choices you can emulate, and mistakes you can avoid, in your own academic writing. It’s true that you can think carefully and thoroughly about anything you read; but you’re most likely to engage this way with some writing when you’re doing it deliberately to make written comments. And that’s exactly what peer reviewing is.
Third, reviewing can connect you with authors
Who can be grateful for your comments (if you sign your review), and with editors who will be grateful for your help. Building a network pays dividends, and an author or editor who remembers your thoughtful review may become a collaborator, a mentor, a source of advice, or just someone you can join for coffee and a chat at the next conference you attend. Yes, sadly, authors sometimes retaliate for an unfavourable review. At least early in your career, you might prefer to review anonymously – but you’re still building connections with editors. Those editors tend to be productive and influential scholars in your field. Don’t pass up chances to make connections like that.
Fourth, and for new authors perhaps most valuable, reviewing gives you a perspective on the publishing process
And that’s difficult to get any other way. You’ll see the draft manuscript to compare with the published version, of course; but in addition, you’ll (very often) see comments from the other reviewers, the decision letter from the editor, and the authors’ Response letter that accompanies the revision. As you steer your own manuscripts through the review process, you can learn from seeing how other authors handled criticism of their drafts. Did they disagree with your critique, but express that disagreement so rationally and professionally that you were persuaded? At some point, you’ll probably want to pull off that trick yourself. Did they betray their irritation and sabotage their revision’s chances? Perhaps you can notice a rhetorical flourish that’s best avoided. Chances to see the whole submission-review-and-revision process play out are hard to come by – and they’re instructive.
I don’t want to suggest that benefit to your own career is the only reason to get involved in peer review. Your own career will depend on others reviewing your work, which makes it appropriate to offer roughly the same amount of review service in return. (Many academics follow a rough rule of thumb, reviewing 2-4 papers for each one they submit.) There’s also a more direct reason. Peer review has two functions: helping journals with decisions to accept or reject, yes; but also helping authors improve their manuscripts. We often focus on the gatekeeping function; but since most manuscripts are eventually published somewhere, the manuscript-improvement function is probably more important. I’ve felt a lot of satisfaction, over the years, that my reviews have helped authors publish better science – just as others have helped me publish better science through their reviews.
By the way, once you’ve reviewed a time or two, you’ll probably get more invitations than you can comfortably manage. It’s perfectly appropriate to turn some down; all of us do. You can review the manuscripts that are closest to your own work or those you find most interesting. Or, if you’re reluctant to provide a review service to a for-profit publisher, you can accept invitations from society-run and other non-profit journals. You won’t be short on opportunities.
So please, if you can, join the global team of reviewers we need for new results to become published knowledge. Maybe reviewing won’t strengthen your CV; but it can strengthen your scholarship.