Step by step guide to reviewers
When you receive an invitation to peer review, you should be sent a copy of the paper's abstract to help you decide whether you wish to do the review. Try to respond to invitations promptly - it will prevent delays. It is also important at this stage to declare any potential Conflict of Interest.
Overview of the Review Report Format
The structure of the review report varies between journals. Some follow an informal structure, while others have a more formal approach.
Many journals don't provide criteria for reviews beyond asking for your 'analysis of merits'. In this case, you may wish to familiarize yourself with examples of other reviews done for the journal, which the editor should be able to provide or, as you gain experience, rely on your own evolving style.
Other journals require a more formal approach. Sometimes they will ask you to address specific questions in your review via a questionnaire. Or they might want you to rate the manuscript on various attributes using a scorecard. Often you can't see these until you log in to submit your review. So when you agree to the work, it's worth checking for any journal-specific guidelines and requirements. If there are formal guidelines, let them direct the structure of your review.
In Both Cases
Whether specifically required by the reporting format or not, you should expect to compile comments to authors and possibly confidential ones to editors only.
The First Read-Through
Following the invitation to review, when you'll have received the article abstract, you should already understand the aims, key data and conclusions of the manuscript. If you don't, make a note now that you need to feedback on how to improve those sections.
The first read-through is a skim-read. It will help you form an initial impression of the paper and get a sense of whether your eventual recommendation will be to accept or reject the paper.
First Read Considerations
Keep a pen and paper handy when skim-reading.
Try to bear in mind the following questions - they'll help you form your overall impression:
- What is the main question addressed by the research? Is it relevant and interesting?
- How original is the topic? What does it add to the subject area compared with other published material?
- Are the conclusions consistent with the evidence and arguments presented? Do they address the main question posed?
- If the author is disagreeing significantly with the current academic consensus, do they have a substantial case? If not, what would be required to make their case credible?
- If the paper includes tables or figures, what do they add to the paper? Do they aid understanding or are they superfluous?
Spotting Potential Major Flaws
While you should read the whole paper, making the right choice of what to read first can save time by flagging major problems early on.
Examples of possibly major flaws include:
- Drawing a conclusion that is contradicted by the author's own statistical or qualitative evidence
- The use of a discredited method
- Ignoring a process that is known to have a strong influence on the area under study
If experimental design features prominently in the paper, first check that the methodology is sound - if not, this is likely to be a major flaw
You might examine:
- The sampling in analytical papers
- The sufficient use of control experiments
- The precision of process data
- The regularity of sampling in time-dependent studies
- The validity of questions, the use of a detailed methodology and the data analysis being done systematically (in qualitative research)
- That qualitative research extends beyond the author's opinions, with sufficient descriptive elements and appropriate quotes from interviews or focus groups
Major Flaws in Information
If methodology is less of an issue, it's often a good idea to look at the data tables, figures or images first. Especially in science research, it's all about the information gathered. If there are critical flaws in this, it's very likely the manuscript will need to be rejected. Such issues include:
- Insufficient data
- Statistically non-significant variations
- Unclear data tables
- Contradictory data that either are not self-consistent or disagree with the conclusions
- Confirmatory data that adds little, if anything, to current understanding - unless strong arguments for such repetition are made
If you find a major problem, note your reasoning and clear supporting evidence (including citations).
Concluding the First Reading
After the initial read and using your notes, including those of any major flaws you found, draft the first two paragraphs of your review - the first summarizing the research question addressed and the second the contribution of the work. If the journal has a prescribed reporting format, this draft will still help you compose your thoughts.
The First Paragraph
This should state the main question addressed by the research and summarize the goals, approaches, and conclusions of the paper. It should:
- Help the editor properly contextualize the research and add weight to your judgement
- Show the author what key messages are conveyed to the reader, so they can be sure they are achieving what they set out to do
- Focus on successful aspects of the paper so the author gets a sense of what they've done well
The Second Paragraph
This should provide a conceptual overview of the contribution of the research. So consider:
- Is the paper's premise interesting and important?
- Are the methods used appropriate?
- Do the data support the conclusions?
After drafting these two paragraphs, you should be in a position to decide whether this manuscript is seriously flawed and should be rejected (see the next section). Or whether it is publishable in principle and merits a detailed, careful read through.
Rejection after the First Reading
Even if you are coming to the opinion that an article has serious flaws, make sure you read the whole paper. This is very important because you may find some really positive aspects that can be communicated to the author. This could help them with future submissions.
A full read-through will also make sure that any initial concerns are indeed correct and fair. After all, you need the context of the whole paper before deciding to reject. If you still intend to recommend rejection, see the section "When recommending rejection."
Before Starting the Second Read-Through
Once the paper has passed your first read and you've decided the article is publishable in principle, one purpose of the second, detailed read-through is to help prepare the manuscript for publication. Of course, you may still decide to reject it following a second reading.
The benchmark for acceptance is whether the manuscript makes a useful contribution to the knowledge base or understanding of the subject matter. It need not be fully complete research - it may be an interim paper. After all research is an incomplete, on-going project by its nature. The detailed read-through should take no more than an hour for the moderately experienced reviewer.
To save time and simplify the review:
- Don't rely solely upon inserting comments on the manuscript document - make separate notes
- Try to group similar concerns or praise together
- If using a review program to note directly onto the manuscript, still try grouping the concerns and praise in separate notes - it helps later
- Note line numbers of text upon which your notes are based - this helps you find items again and also aids those reading your review
- Keep images, graphs and data tables in clear view - either print them off or have them in view on a second computer monitor or window
Now that you have completed your preparations, you're ready to spend an hour or so reading carefully through the manuscript.
Doing the Second Read-Through
As you're reading through the manuscript for a second time, you'll need to keep in mind the argument's construction, the clarity of the language and content.
With regard to the argument’s construction, you should identify:
- Any places where the meaning is unclear or ambiguous
- Any factual errors
- Any invalid arguments
You may also wish to consider:
- Does the title properly reflect the subject of the paper?
- Does the abstract provide an accessible summary of the paper?
- Do the keywords accurately reflect the content?
- Is the paper an appropriate length?
- Are the key messages short, accurate and clear?
Check the Language
Not every submission is well written. Part of your role is to make sure that the text’s meaning is clear.
If the article is difficult to understand, you should have rejected it already. However, if the language is poor but you understand the core message, see if you can suggest improvements to fix the problem:
- Are there certain aspects that could be communicated better, such as parts of the discussion?
- Should the authors consider resubmitting to the same journal after language improvements?
- Would you consider looking at the paper again once these issues are dealt with?
On Grammar and Punctuation
Your primary role is judging the research content. Don't spend time polishing grammar or spelling. Editors will make sure that the text is at a high standard before publication. However, if you spot grammatical errors that affect clarity of meaning, then it's important to highlight these. Expect to suggest such amendments - it's rare for a manuscript to pass review with no corrections.
The Second Read-Through: Section by Section Guidance
1. The Introduction
A well-written introduction:
- Sets out the argument
- Summarizes recent research related to the topic
- Highlights gaps in current understanding or conflicts in current knowledge
- Establishes the originality of the research aims by demonstrating the need for investigations in the topic area
- Gives a clear idea of the target readership, why the research was carried out and the novelty and topicality of the manuscript