Reviewer of the Month (2023)

Posted On 2023-09-04 14:29:39

In 2023, JSS reviewers continue to make outstanding contributions to the peer review process. They demonstrated professional effort and enthusiasm in their reviews and provided comments that genuinely help the authors to enhance their work.

Hereby, we would like to highlight some of our outstanding reviewers, with a brief interview of their thoughts and insights as a reviewer. Allow us to express our heartfelt gratitude for their tremendous effort and valuable contributions to the scientific process.

January, 2023
Ian J Wellington, University of Connecticut, USA

February, 2023
Taige Cao, Sengkang General Hospital, Singapore

April, 2023
Anthony L Mikula, Mayo Clinic, USA
Netanja I Harlianto, Utrecht University, the Netherlands

May, 2023
Ehsan Dowlati, University of Michigan, USA

June, 2023
Bryan Zheng, Brown University, USA

January, 2023

Ian J Wellington

Dr. Ian James Wellington is a senior resident in orthopedic surgery focused on spine surgery at the University of Connecticut, USA. He completed his undergraduate degree in neuroscience at Bucknell University before attending medical school at the University of Maryland. During his residency, he completed a dedicated research year as the Neag Chase research fellow, during which he conducted cadaveric biomechanical studies and clinical outcomes research in spine, sports, and hand surgery. His current research interests are minimally invasive spine surgery techniques and implant biomechanics. A list of Dr. Wellington’s research can be found here.

The way Dr. Wellington sees it, reviewers are the backbone of modern academic literature. With the recent increase in open-access online-only publications, the volume of research output has exploded. The large growth in research quantity can place its quality at risk. As such, reviewers provide a means of ensuring that scientifically sound studies are produced and shared with other academics. To him, a good reviewer should have a well-rounded understanding of not only the topic of the manuscript they are reviewing but also the kind of research being conducted. For example, for a biomechanics manuscript, a good reviewer should have an intimate understanding of biomechanics study design. Having a familiar understanding of standard statistical analyses is also fundamental for a good reviewer, as errors in statistical methodology have large impacts on the quality of a study. Finally, he points out that good reviewers should see themselves not as academic gatekeepers, but as members of a research team. They are to help the authors elevate the quality of the manuscript so that it can be more impactful rather than simply deciding if a work is acceptable for publication.

Viewing from a reviewer’s perspective, Dr. Wellington emphasizes that seeking institutional review board (IRB) approval is fundamental to the integrity of modern research. Before IRBs became standard practice, research harmful to its subjects was prevalent. From the Stanford Prison Experiment to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, research was capable of causing long-term harm to “participants”. While these studies have damaged those involved, they also bred distrust in the scientific community from the general public. In his opinion, IRBs provide a safeguard against these kinds of studies, ensure the safety of the public, and facilitate proper research practices.

I review for a few reasons. I feel that reviewing encourages me to dive deeper into the current literature surrounding the topic of whatever I’m reviewing. This facilitates me to expand my understanding of different subject matters. Additionally, reviewing forces me to critically evaluate study designs and methods, which helps me when designing my own studies. Finally, as someone who relies on the suggestions of reviewers evaluating my own work, I feel that I owe it to others to review their work,” says Dr. Wellington.

(by Brad Li, Alisa Lu)

February, 2023

Taige Cao

Dr. Taige Cao is a dermatologist at Sengkang General Hospital, specializing in eczema, psoriasis, itch, and minimally invasive aesthetic procedures. He earned his medical degree from the National University of Singapore and completed his dermatology training at the National Skin Centre. With a remarkable career, Dr. Cao achieved Distinction in Postgraduate Diploma in Dermatology from Queen Mary, University of London and passed the Specialty Certificate Examination in Dermatology from the Royal College of Physicians (UK). Beyond Western medicine, he is a registered acupuncturist, embracing the holistic approach of Traditional Chinese Medicine. He encourages patients to actively participate in their health by exploring health beliefs, practices, diet, and lifestyle. Furthermore, Dr. Cao is devoted to medical education and holds the position of Clinical Assistant Professor at Duke-NUS Medical School, imparting his knowledge to patients and fellow medical professionals alike.

As a reviewer, Dr. Cao thinks it is imperative that the peer-review process remains impartial and trustworthy. To ensure this, he has taken steps to educate himself on common unconscious biases that might affect judgment. Awareness of these biases is the first step, but he believes it is equally crucial to actively counteract them. Instead of relying on subjective feelings or perceptions, he strictly adheres to using clear and objective criteria for evaluation. These criteria help ensure that every paper is assessed based purely on its scientific merit and the validity of its content. Another essential aspect of maintaining integrity in the review process, in his opinion, is recognizing and addressing potential conflicts of interest (COIs). Whether a paper is authored by someone he might know personally or professionally, or if there is any other reason his impartiality could be compromised, he makes it a point to recuse himself. And finally, irrespective of previous experiences or pre-existing opinions, he strives to approach each paper with a fresh perspective. This approach guarantees that every author gets a fair and unbiased evaluation, upholding the sanctity of the peer-review process.

From a reviewer’s perspective, Dr. Cao recognizes the paramount importance of transparently addressing COIs within the research he assesses. This understanding extends beyond mere protocol—it is integral to maintaining trust and ensuring the credibility of the studies one evaluates. A COI, though not automatically discrediting, can introduce nuances and potential biases in research. By diligently looking for and considering these disclosures, he believes one can provide a balanced and informed critique, ensuring that the integrity of the research process is upheld.

Engaging in peer reviewing is both a privilege and a continuous learning journey for me. It grants me early access to groundbreaking research, sharpening my analytical and critical thinking skills as I assess the quality and integrity of new studies. This process doesn't just enhance my expertise but also solidifies my role in upholding the standards of our academic community. I relish the chance to connect with diverse perspectives and methodologies from around the globe,” says Dr. Cao.

(by Brad Li, Alisa Lu)

April, 2023

Anthony L Mikula

Dr. Anthony L. Mikula, MD, is an enfolded neurosurgery spine fellow at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, USA, pursuing a career as an academic spine surgeon. He completed his Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry at the University of Minnesota and then earned his Doctor of Medicine degree at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Since joining residency, he has published numerous peer-reviewed publications, presented at national spine meetings, won the resident teacher of the year award, and earned top resident abstract awards at the joint AANS/CNS spine section meeting the last five years in a row. He also completed an enfolded fellowship in spinal oncology at MD Anderson with Dr. Laurence Rhines that was supported by a NREF Directed Residency Scholarship. After graduating residency next year, he will complete a spinal deformity and spine tumor fellowship at the University of California – San Francisco with Dr. Chris Ames. You may connect with Dr. Mikula on Twitter @anthony_mikula.

To Dr. Mikula, the true value of peer review lies in the ability to improve one’s work. When experts weigh in on another group’s work, it provides a fresh perspective that can augment the study. It can also provide clarity for points within the manuscript the authors may feel are obvious but need to be explained further for the reader. Another benefit of peer review is to ensure a clear message is delivered by the work. He explains, “Too often, we as writers can get lost in the details when a clear and simple message can be the most effective manuscript.

However, the peer-review system has limitations, which include the small number of reviewers that get to provide feedback for a manuscript. This provides a relatively small survey considering the number of readers a manuscript can reach, and occasionally the feedback does not represent the general sentiment of the overall group. This limitation could theoretically be addressed by having more reviewers, but that additional time requirement may not be realistic. In view of this, Dr. Mikula points out that a solution may be a “rapid review” by a panel of 5-10 reviewers and if the manuscript passes that stage, a more thorough review could be provided by 2-3 people. Another limitation is the “group think” that can happen when reviewers see the feedback provided by previous reviewers. “Often the consecutive reviewers will follow the lead of the first reviewer. This could be solved by simply keeping all the reviewers blinded to each other’s feedback,” he shares.

As a trainee, Dr. Mikula finds it challenging to allocate time to do peer review as he has little control over his schedules. With a busy clinical schedule, academic time is often limited to nights and weekends. But as an attending surgeon, there may be more opportunity to build in academic time that could be set aside for tasks such as peer review. Nevertheless, he believes that it is a privilege to be a reviewer, and emphasizes that as authors often spend countless hours on a study and the associated manuscript, playing a small role in that process is very rewarding.

From a reviewer’s perspective, Dr. Mikula feels the reporting guidelines do serve an important role of ensuring the essentials of a study and associated manuscript are in place. They also create a common language for presenting work that is familiar to the authors, reviewers, and readers, providing structure and clarity to the manuscript.

(by Teresa Lin, Brad Li)

Netanja I Harlianto

Dr. Netanja Harlianto obtained his medical degree from Utrecht University, Netherlands, and is currently pursuing a PhD and Epidemiology degree in the field of orthopedic surgery. He has a broad research interest, including metastatic tumors of the spine, metabolic spinal disorders, joint arthroplasty, spinal trauma surgery, as well as projects related to population health in oncology, trauma, and musculoskeletal disease. You may connect with Dr. Harlianto on LinkedIn.

In the current peer-review system, there is a disproportionate number of reviewers compared to the number of submitted articles, which, in Dr. Harlianto’s opinion, may make it difficult to find suitable peer reviewers with sufficient subject knowledge. As a result, review times are delayed, as well as the dissemination of results to the general public. Increased efforts for reviewer recognition have been made available in recent years to encourage reviewers, including review verification via Web of Science, the benefit of reduced article processing fees, and temporary access to the full issue of the journal to tackle this issue. Moreover, biases may exist against the author, which may be reduced by employing double-blinded peer-review practices. For accepted articles, post-publication peer review may also benefit from higher transparency when the reviewer reports are made available (either signed or anonymized) alongside the published article.

As a reviewer, Dr. Harlianto thinks it is important to identify the strengths and limitations of a research paper, how authors can overcome these shortcomings, and provide them with feasible and constructive feedback. Reviewers should be aware of the time they may need, in order to complete the review in a timely manner and prevent additional delays in the peer-review process. In addition, it is important to mention if there are sections of the paper that the reviewers are not qualified to review, thus only provide feedback on areas that the reviewers are knowledgeable in (e.g. certain statistical methodologies).

Although peer review is usually anonymous, Dr. Harlianto believes that peer review is an essential aspect of science, given that editors and reviewers also invest their time in evaluating one’s own submitted work for publication. Furthermore, peer reviewing may enable one to learn from one’s peers while remaining critical with regards to the quality of work, the methods used, and the validity of the evaluated results. It showcases a commitment to the scientific field, helps one to stay up to date with the latest trends and developments, and may inspire new research ideas and experimental techniques.

On the other hand, Dr. Harlianto believes data sharing is a crucial aspect for advancing science with regards to the reproducibility of results, the verification of findings, and the reuse of existing data. Data sharing has the potential to improve research quality, thereby accelerating scientific progress and practical knowledge.

(by Teresa Lin, Brad Li)

May 2023

Ehsan Dowlati

Dr. Ehsan Dowlati is a current endovascular neurosurgery fellow at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI, USA. He received a BS in Neuroscience and MS in Biotechnology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. He subsequently attended Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke, VA, where he was inducted into Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) and received Academic Distinction in Research. He completed a neurosurgical residency at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC, where he also completed an enfolded fellowship in minimally invasive spine surgery. He has co-authored over 60 peer-reviewed articles and multiple book chapters, earning him the Amy and Ed Knight Research Award in Neurosurgery in 2023. He has research interests in neurosurgical outcomes, cerebrovascular neurosurgery, and neurocritical care. Find more about Dr. Dowlati’s work through his ResearchGate and PubMed page, and connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

In Dr. Dowlati’s opinion, limitations surrounding peer review typically involve finding reviewers to commit time to the process given that it is almost always anonymous and there is no financial incentive. Journals can provide some recognition to reviewers who provide their time to this important process.

Dr. Dowlati acknowledges that there is inherent bias in all manuscripts and the review process. To minimize this, the review must be an evidence-based evaluation of the methodology and results and based on the existing body of literature. Double-blind review with anonymization of authors and institutions as well as the reviewer is key. Additionally, authors should be encouraged to use standardized guidelines such as STROBE to try to make the process more objective.

Dr. Dowlati believes that being a reviewer is certainly one way to contribute to one’s field of expertise and advancing science. Although it can be time consuming, reviewers have the benefit of keeping up to date on research by being the first to view and analyze new potential studies. Peer review can also help inspire new ideas from authors’ work. Thus, there are intangible benefits of reviewing. He encourages everyone to devote some time to the peer-review process to participate in both their own academic development as well as advancement of science.

Lastly, Dr. Dowlati believes that it is important for authors to have their data readily available upon request. If there are cases that require replication of studies or collaboration or meta-analyses, the raw data become an important source of information. Data sharing allows for more collective and collaborative efforts.

(by Teresa Lin, Brad Li)

June 2023

Bryan Zheng

Bryan is a medical student at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA, with a degree in applied physics from Cornell University. He has published work in multiple facets of neurosurgery, including several studies on outcomes after spine surgery under principal investigator Dr. Jared Fridley and department chair Dr. Ziya Gokaslan.

Bryan believes the peer-review system may benefit from more quality control. The most frustrating review is absolutely not the harsh and critical one, but the one where there was no apparent effort to engage with the material or give it a fair chance. He explains, “While I can only speak for myself, I would guess most other authors would agree. The ‘meta-review’ of the spectrum of potential feedback an article receives seems to mostly fall on editors. But the whole process could be improved by a systematic and transparent dedicated process as well as personnel for ensuring worthwhile reviews.”

There are many qualities a reviewer should possess. In Bryan’s opinion, objectivity is obviously a must. A reviewer should also be willing to deeply engage with the material and even put oneself into the authors’ minds. In his personal experience, it is always gratifying to receive a review where the reader clearly tried to understand the motivations and process that led to the words on the page, even if it is overwhelmingly negative and the reason for rejection. These are often the most helpful to everyone, resulting in actionable feedback to improve a manuscript while preventing the publication of substandard work.

As a reviewer, Bryan thinks reporting guidelines are important for authors to be aware of and follow. He appreciates that the scientific community generally emphasizes reports that follow these criteria but does not always require strict confirmation of them (approximately 90% compliance rate). The latter might result in a rigid body of literature - some of the most impactful results in neurosurgery at every level of evidence to both clinical decision-making and patient outcomes may not be “perfect” CONSORT/STROBE/PRISMA papers.

Trying to publish results without at least occasionally taking the time to help peers review their works would feel selfish. It only feels right to pay it forward,” says Bryan.

(by Teresa Lin, Brad Li)