Peer Review for Conference Proceedings versus Journals: is there a difference?

Is there really any difference between peer reviewing papers for a conference or for a journal? It depends on whom you are talking to. The Editors of a journal will tell you to put the utmost care and effort into their reviews for the sake of the scientific record. The Organising Committee of the conference may tell you to do the same thing. The author will tell you either way the paper is fantastic.

A paper or a poster presented at a conference can appear like a rough block of marble; made of strong stuff, but unfinished and coarse. Good peer review is like a sculptor, chipping away at the unnecessary parts, sanding the rough edges and buffing it out to a high shine, ready to be admired by the world. The skills needed at each stage are the same, but are needed in different amounts depending on how close the project is to completion. It’s up to the Editors of the publication to guide the reviewers and suggest which skills are needed, and set the tone for the peer review process.

In general, scientific journals ask reviewers to report on four aspects of the paper: its significance, novelty, rigour and originality. These journals can have long-standing reputations to uphold (or reputations they wish to develop) and require the reviewers to help them maintain this standard. Whilst conferences also have reputations to maintain, with changing Organising Committees and Proceedings Editors comes a change in tone, to match the changes in the scientific field. Organising Committees want to have the most recent, novel and exciting results presented at their conference, with reviewers that can help pick out the best work and indicate the work that may not be the most original.

Reviewing papers for journals will always have an element of prestige. Scientists take it as a point of pride to say “my review was trusted by the Editors of this respected journal and my comments and criticisms were acknowledged”. There are also now many ways in which you can be rewarded for reviewing for journals, from discounts on Open Access publications to Publons, even to recognition as the Reviewer of the Year. The work submitted to journals has almost always already been read by the author’s colleagues, and been checked before submission. The reviewer’s job at this stage is to help the paper be the best it can be, and sand of the rough edges. There is much satisfaction to be gained from the hard work of reviewing for journals.

Reviewing for conferences may require using the same skills, but the rewards are very different. The Editors of proceedings cannot offer you Publons recognition, but you will see the most recently discovered results and guide the work at it’s most formative stage. By engaging with the work of a scientific community at this stage you can stay at the cutting edge of research guide the work from the very beginning. Sometimes, you can also contribute your own work to the project and help discover new, even more exciting results. Each individual paper is a snapshot of a researcher’s project, and by engaging with the project at this early stage new opportunities for understanding will be available to you.

Collectively, a record of a conference reflects the state-of-the-art research at the time of the conference, and over a larger period of time for a continuing series of conferences. Conferences are also the preferred publication method for researchers in industry, being the place where the most up-to-date research can be found. It can also contain material not often found in other journals, such as inconclusive or negative results. Proceedings can also be a fantastic learning tool for students on how to write papers and research results. The results included in conference proceedings are inclusive and diverse.

Conferences also offer experience in different kinds of peer review that traditional journals do not have the flexibility to implement. Our Peer Review Policy for IOP Conference Series states that it’s up to the Organisers and proceeding Editors to choose the method the peer review; we do not impose any kind of peer review on the proceedings. Conference proceedings can be the testing ground for new methods of peer review; we see many proceedings that went through double-blind review, open peer review or at least three rounds of review. The choice is peer review model is left with the best possible people; the Proceedings Editors and Organisers that are masters of the subject matter and are a part of the community, and understand what will help the community grow.

Ultimately, peer review is about asking you, the expert in the field, for your input on recent work and to help shape it into even better work. For all the much debated and well documented flaws in peer review, it’s the dominant method of substantiating the quality of work before publication. Whether it’s a conference proceedings paper, freshly-hewn from the mountain, or a submitted paper, polished and pristine, to help define the most significant, novel, rigorous and original work in your field.

Take an animated tour of our peer review process here!


This post was written by Stephanie Gill, our conference publishing coordinator. Stephanie works on IOP Conference Series, which includes: Journal of Physics: Conference Series, IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering and IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science.


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