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Reviewing for scientific journals: A how to

Scientific journals are complex ecosystems, bringing together different actors in what is loosely akin to an inquisitorial court of law. The chief editor is the judge. She will decide whether a manuscript goes out for review and makes the final decision should the paper be peer reviewed. Members of the editorial board are like council, ensuring crucial checks and balances among authors (the applicant), reviewers (the jury), and even the chief editor. The reviewers play a crucial role in the ecosystem, since they give expert opinion on whether the manuscript should be published, and provide in-depth analysis that both corrects errors and points out communicative and scientific improvements. Without reviewers, quality control would be in the hands of the authors themselves, and readers in deciding whether the paper was worth considering.

Reviewing is a professional act. You have been invited to do so based on your expertise and reputation. Your report must live up to this and therefore you need to approach the review in the right mind set, which is as an expert who will be unbiased, thorough and thoughtful. As the saying goes ‘Review for others as you would have others review for you’. Expect to spend several hours or more on a review.

Understanding a study sufficiently well to comment on it means setting aside blocks of time to read the paper and write your report. Even if reading and writing are done in a single period, I suggest making comments on the manuscript file itself and to add corresponding elaborations on an electronic file (that will become your report). There may be technical parts of the manuscript where you lack expertise: do not attempt to comment on aspects for which you really do not feel qualified.

The editorial office is responsible for the smooth running the journal. Typical decision times vary from days (in cases of desk rejections) to several months. One late review can hold up the whole process. Only accept to review if you can make journal deadlines, and if you are willing to review but may be late, contact the journal office to see if you can negotiate a new deadline.

Authors and editors need to understand and be able to react to the reviewer’s report. This is achieved by writing a structured document. You should start your report by recapping the manuscript, eventually ending in general observations about clarity and interest. This is followed by two main sections: major comments and minor comments. Number each of your comments and include page and line numbers of what exactly you are referring to in the manuscript. Unless the journal specifies otherwise, do not mention whether you recommend publication in the journal. This will go into a separate area reserved for the editors only.

Your report should address the following:

  • Science. Evaluate the appropriateness of hypotheses, statistical tests, analyses, and the interpretation of results.
  • Veracity of facts, logic and claims. The science should be precise, accurate, complete and verifiable (including cited work).
  • Interest, importance, novelty. What is the advance? How general are the findings?
  • Clarity. Your job is not to correct grammar and spelling! This said, you should comment on the overall communicative quality of the study, and highlight in the minor comments section those key passages that are unclear.

Once a review is submitted it cannot be revised. I therefore suggest that before actually submitting, you wait a few days and come back to the document and eventually revise.

Once the review complete, you will be asked to make a recommendation that will – for most journals – only be seen by the editor. The recommendation is typically chosen from: accept, accept pending minor revisions, major revisions, reject. The content of your report to the authors should be consistent with your publication recommendation.

You will have the opportunity to leave confidential comments to the editor. This is the place to give your opinion and, should you recommend revisions, list those that are most important. If you did not have the expertise to review certain sections of the paper, then say it here (not in the report for the authors). As said above, it is important that your review and comments to the editor give the same basic message. Writing a glowing report only to be accompanied by a confidential recommendation to reject without the possibility of resubmission, presents problems for both editors and authors.

One of the most contentious aspects of reviewing a manuscript is deciding whether or not to sign your report. Some do it systematically, others never, and yet others only when their reports are positive. Signing makes reviewers more responsible. But signing carries risks, one being that should the authors be upset by your (well-intentioned) comments, then this may have consequences in the future, particularly if you are a young scientist. Unless you know the risks and want to communicate your identity to the authors (ask yourself honestly why you would want to do this), then I suggest not signing your report.

It’s a good idea to save electronic copies of both the marked manuscript and your review. These will come in handy should, for any reason, the journal misplaces your report, and should you be asked to re-review the manuscript.

The journal may have a space for you to indicate if you would be willing to re-review the manuscript should it be revised. It is good practice to do this, since you are in the best position to judge whether the authors have adequately replied to your comments.

Reviewing is an enriching experience for you and important for promoting the quality of the scientific commons.

Feature Image Credit: Photo by Kaitlyn Baker via Unsplash.

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