Peer review as a teaching tool

Richard Somerville gives grad students a taste of the publication process

“It’s a wonderful journal that’s never been published.” However, that’s just fine with the students who write and review it, says Richard Somerville (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego). Somerville, a former chair of the UCAR Board of Trustees, created Reviews of Atmospheric Science Topics (ROAST) in the fall of 2002. The journal teaches fledgling researchers how their work will be scrutinized in the real world.

“Peer review has long been a central feature of the working lives of research scientists,” says Somerville. “In the typical graduate classroom, however, peer review is never even mentioned. Why should a graduate student wait until after the Ph.D. degree to experience peer review?”

ROAST is written each year by the students of Somerville’s first-year graduate course in atmospheric thermodynamics. Serving as editor, Somerville assigns survey-oriented topics to groups of students, with about three authors to a team. Among the recent topics:

  • Current concentrations of Antarctic ozone depletion precursors
  • Recent advances in our knowledge of Earth’s energy budget
  • How is Arctic sea ice changing?

Each team reviews each of the other teams’ work. Comments are returned to Somerville and then sent anonymously to the authors. As with actual journals, the authors must respond to each of the critiques they receive and revise their papers accordingly.

Through their work on ROAST, students learn subject matter as well as process. “Each student is a researcher and coauthor of one paper and an anonymous reviewer of the others,” says Somerville. “Thus, they learn something about all of the topics being studied.”

ROAST emerged through Somerville’s interest in K-12 education, where inquiry-based techniques are designed to boost levels of student engagement in science. “My impression is that in many levels of primary and secondary education, there’s been a quiet revolution,” says Somerville. In contrast, he believes many graduate programs are still dominated by “yellowing lecture notes being read by a graying faculty.” Apprenticeships are the main mode by which students learn how to do research, notes Somerville, but peer review is seldom addressed in that context.

ROAST succeeds in part because of the caliber of students involved. “We’re dealing with crème de la crème students, typically with a bachelor’s degree in physics from a good university,” says Somerville. “I have a hunch it might work less well for younger students.” Nonnative English speakers find themselves challenged, he adds, but they get a lot of help from the more fluent students.

While his students sense the heat of the review process through ROAST, Somerville says they rarely feel burned. “Any defects have been identified not by an authority figure or on an exam, but by student peers. They’re getting a detailed criticism, often a very professional one, all rendered palatable by the fact that it’s anonymous.” Along the way, he adds, “The students ask very profound and professional questions about the whole idea of peer review—‘What happens if somebody steals your idea?,’ for example. They come to appreciate both the strengths and weaknesses of peer review in evaluating scientific papers."

by Bob Henson

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Peer review as a teaching tool

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New directors for NWS and WMO

President’s Corner - China: Reflections on meteorology and society after 20 years

Web Watch - Statistics of Weather and Climate Extremes

Governance Update - The October meetings

Science Bit - U.S. snowfall analysis

UCAR Community Calendar