A journal editor has asked you to peer review a manuscript submitted to their journal. You’ve accepted the invitation, knowing that you have the expertise and time to commit to this key process in the dissemination of scientific findings. You may also know that peer reviewers are sometimes notoriously in conflict with each other, with some finding the work described in a submission worth publication while another reviewer reviles it as utterly unworthy.
Reasonable people can disagree, but it’s important that the process that brought them to such disagreements is a systematic one. Reviewer comments on papers drive editorial decisions to publish the work or not, and that in turn directly affects the careers and progress of every author on the submitted manuscript. Most peer reviewers themselves have had work submitted to peer review, and participating in this process is considered just another responsibility in ensuring that scientific findings make their way into the public eye. Below are some tips that you can use to ensure that you are being fair and ethical when it’s your turn to contribute to the peer-review process.
1. Don’t accept the review if you don’t have time. A careful and thoughtful review usually will take several hours, at least. If you do not have that time available, decline the invitation.
2. Make sure that you are familiar with what the journal publishes. As you conduct your review you want to be sure you do so with the journal’s mission and scope in mind. The inviting editor should give you a framework for this, but if not, a review of recent papers can be helpful.
3. Familiarize yourself with any peer-review guidance that the publisher offers. Most journals have online guidelines for peer reviewers, and adhering to these can ensure a systematic, consistent process.
4. Confirm the goals of the review and the process. Some journals have forms that peer reviewers must complete, in which they rank the manuscript based on several criteria, including “novelty.” Other journals do not emphasize novelty and instead focus only on the soundness of the work.
5. Be judicious in asking for more experiments or analyses, keeping in mind the scope of the work being described and the scope of the journal considering it. Many peer reviewers ask for extra work that goes well beyond the scope of the studies in the submitted manuscript. Keep in mind that funding, resources, and time are all limited for most scientists and that any further work requested should be closely associated with the research under consideration.
6. Be respectful and appropriate. Do not assume that the authors are all from a specific demographic or that because of their names are not fluent in English. Do not include insulting or rude comments or language in your review, and obviously avoid all personal remarks. The review should focus on the scientific and presentation aspects of the manuscript and nothing else.
7. Offer actionable criticism and recommendations. As an example, instead of saying, “The discussion is vague,” offer actionable suggestions, such as “The discussion should be more specific, citing any studies with similar designs and comparing previous findings with the current work. Any comments in the discussion that are speculative should be noted as such and used sparingly.”
8. Make sure that what you’re suggesting or critiquing is indeed an omission or a problem with the manuscript. Reviewers often reveal their own lack of thoroughness by asking authors to include data or language in the submitted manuscript that is already there. For each suggestion or critique, thoroughly double-check the original submission to make sure you did not overlook something relevant to it.
9. Feel free to compliment the authors where doing so is fitting. Reviews do not need to be a litany of critique and criticism. It is OK to let authors know when something is well done.
10. Be organized. Provide the authors (and the editor) with an overview of your main conclusions about the work and then take each element—abstract, introduction, etc.—one by one and provide specific related comments, citing line and page numbers. Numbering your comments helps both the editor and the authors, if they have to write a point-by-point response to your review.
Turn in your review on time. Submission to publication times are getting shorter and shorter at most journals, and holding a paper for review for a long time delays everyone’s timelines, especially if you recommend rejection or more experiments.
Do not omit review of the supplemental materials.
Maintain a commitment to privacy and do not share the manuscript or information from it with others.
If you are reviewing a revision
Some journals send revised manuscripts back to the original reviewers for their opinions about how the authors responded to the comments and suggestions. Usually, this step is not the time to ask for more work or for major revisions of elements from the original submission that you did not address.
The focus for a revision is how well the authors addressed the points reviewers raised in the first round, how they incorporated changes into the text, and the extent to which any further work met the reviewer expectations. A second round of review should home in on these elements and how well the new material fits into the overall submission.
The Committee on Publication Ethics, or COPE, has formalized guidelines for peer review, and you can find them here. Many journals endorse and follow these guidelines, which are available online in English, Spanish, and Chinese (simplified). The guidelines cover conflicts of interest, professional responsibilities of peer reviewers, keeping comments within scope, professionalism, and report formatting, along with what to do if you become aware of peer review ethics violations. The COPE guidelines also describe the constructs for peer review, which will vary from journal to journal. Although most journals still keep the peer reviewers’ identities hidden from authors, some journals conceal identities of authors, too, whereas still others have open peer review in which the identities of all parties are known.