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How to Peer Review an Article

Adrian Bell on October 9, 2017 at 11:06 am

The die is cast and you’ve volunteered to peer review your first article. The manuscript has arrived and it’s time to do your duty as a member of the scientific community. At this point you may be wondering – “How do I actually go about this?”

Your first peer review can seem daunting. Fair enough – you’re being asked to provide concise and useful comments on a lengthy, complex piece of writing. But never fear. Peer review is a process that can be broken down into simple and logical steps. Before we start though, let’s stop for a moment to consider the responsibilities that you carry on your shoulders, and that should be at the forefront of your mind throughout the process.

What are the responsibilities of a peer reviewer?

• First and foremost, a peer reviewer needs to be fair and unbiased. The objectivity of the reviewer is central to the institution of peer review. Bring your scientific knowledge to the table and nothing else.
• You also need to be timely. Don’t be that reviewer who’s holding up the whole process.
• The reviewer must maintain the confidentiality of the process. Don’t share any details regarding either the manuscript or communications relating to it. This confidentiality protects trade secrets, the journal’s copyright, and most importantly the confidence of all involved that they can discuss the paper in an open and candid manner.
• You must report any ethical concerns that you have to the journal, whether they relate to plagiarism, significant similarities between the manuscript and other submissions or publications, issues with patient consent, or suspected misconduct that may have occured during the study or in the writing or submission of the manuscript.

Before you begin

If you’ve never done a review before, it can be useful to do some preparation. Start by re-reading the reviewer comments on your own peer-reviewed publications (you can pick the more encouraging ones). Read over the journal’s guidelines for reviewers to see what they expect from your comments.

Now it’s time to begin. The guiding principle of your review is that you’re going to look at the big picture and utilize your keen eye for detail. You may be thinking, “It’s hard to do both those things at the same time!”. It certainly is, which is why you’ll break them into two separate parts of the process.

The big picture

Begin your review by reading the entire paper to get an overview of what the authors are trying to achieve. Don’t worry, at this stage, about the nitty-gritty. Once you have completed this initial read, ask yourself:
• How important is the topic of the paper to the field? Is it addressing an area of research that I and my peers need to know more about?
• Is the paper original? If it describes a study, have these experiments been done before? If it contains a meta-analysis, has the topic already been addressed with reference to different studies, making this review redundant?
• Assuming the paper passes these first two tests, does it succeed in its attempt to add something new?

When you have finished with your big-picture read, you will know if the manuscript is publishable or not. If you have concluded that it is worthy of publication, it’s time to get down to details.

The Nitty-Gritty

As you get to work on the nitty-gritty, break the process down even further and read the manuscript section by section.
The abstract: does it provide a good summary of the paper?
The introduction: does it provide useful and relevant background information?
The methodology: is it robust? Flawed? If flawed, what exactly is wrong with it?
The analysis: is it sound, or have the authors erred in their handling of the data?
The results: do they flow properly from the data?
The figures: are they easy to understand? Do they match the data in the text?
The conclusions: are they a logical and reasonable interpretation of the results?
The citations: are they both relevant and recent?

Note down errors as you go. It will help you, and the authors, if you categorize them in two different ways:
• By the specific section of the paper to which they relate (for example, methodology or results) or by another specific issue (for example, language or ethics)
• By major issue versus minor issue

Writing your report

Now it’s time to write your report on the paper. Remember, this is for the benefit of the staff at the journal, including the Editor in Chief, as well as the author. With that in mind, you should write your report according to a few basic principles:
• Begin with a short summary of the paper and your overall impression of its value.
• Your comments should be clearly arranged in categories.
• Include a separate list of comments for the Editor’s eyes only.
• Make a recommendation – reject/accept with major changes/accept with minor changes. Give your reasons.
• Be nice! Review unto others as you would have them review unto you.

Hopefully that daunting task doesn’t seem so daunting now. Remember – the key to approaching your review is to break the process down into its component parts and take them one at a time. Good luck with that first review and may it be only the first of many.

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