In our previous Peer Review Week posts we looked at why you should become a peer reviewer and how to become a peer reviewer. Once you’ve received your first invitation to review a manuscript, what process should you follow? What are the habits of effective peer reviewers?
The following tips, taken from our comprehensive reviewer guidelines and best practice, are a good place to start.
Know when to say “no”
The first quality of a good reviewer is knowing when not to review. If you are invited to review a manuscript it won’t always be right for you to accept that invitation, however desperate the editor is to find reviewers. Here are some reasons why you sometimes shouldn’t review:
You don’t have the time
If you are especially busy then it may be better to decline an invitation to review. If you don’t you could end up rushing the review. You might then miss an important detail in the manuscript. Or find that you don’t have enough time to write helpful and constructive feedback for the author. Taking on a review when you’re too busy may also mean that you delay returning your report. This can add to the agony of the author anxiously waiting to receive the outcome of their submission.
You are not the right person to review the paper
Editors work hard to make sure they invite the most appropriate people to review. However, you’re the best person to judge where your expertise lies. If you don’t know a field well enough then it is better to suggest the editor finds someone else
You have a conflict of interest
You may occasionally be invited to review a paper when it wouldn’t be ethical for you to do so. In these cases you should tell the journal editor about any conflicts of interest immediately, so they can find an alternative reviewer if necessary.
Get to know the journal
Being familiar with the journal’s content and house style will help you decide if the article you are reviewing is a good fit. Some journals also have a specific format in which reviews should be submitted – make sure you’ve read any guidelines before you get started.
Check for originality, presentation, relevance, and significance
Articles should bring something new to the field and do it in clear language that is appropriate for the readership of the journal. Questions to have in mind when reading the manuscript (in no particular order) include:
- Is the submission original?
- Does the paper fit the scope of the journal?
- Does the paper help to expand or further research in this subject area?
- Do you feel that the significance and potential impact of a paper is high or low?
- Is the paper complete? Is there an abstract or summary of the work undertaken as well as a concluding section?
- Are all relevant accompanying data, citations, or references given by the author?
- Is the methodology presented in the manuscript and any analysis provided both accurate and properly conducted?
- Should it be shortened and reconsidered in another form?
- Is the submission in Standard English to aid the understanding of the reader?
Provide positive and constructive criticism, and detailed comments
Positive comments are as important as critical ones, so make sure to highlight what the authors have done well. When offering criticism, remember that you are aiming to help the authors improve their article, so be as detailed and helpful as possible. You should avoid generalized or vague statements, along with any negative comments which aren’t relevant or constructive.
Your comments can cover content, style, or presentation. If you have time, make suggestions as to how the author can improve clarity, succinctness, and the overall quality of presentation. Remember: you may disagree with the author’s opinions but, provided they are consistent with the available evidence, you should allow them to stand.
Complete your review in a timely manner, and request an extension if needed
Peer review can be one of the longest and most frustrating parts of the academic writing process for authors, so keeping to an agreed timetable is important. Delays can affect the reputation of the journal, not to mention making life difficult for the editor. If you know you will need more time to complete your review, ask the journal editor for an extension as soon as possible. They can let the author(s) know and factor it into their issue planning.
Make a recommendation
Let the editor know your overall opinion. Tell them whether they should accept the paper, ask for revisions (minor or major), or if it isn’t suitable for publication in its current form.
Sleep on it, and revise before you submit
The editor is relying on your judgment to help them keep the quality of content in their journal as high as possible. Take your time to make sure your comments are thorough and your recommendation is considered.