Learning to review papers – a few thoughts and pointers

Having come to the end of a project and reached the stage where I want to be publishing things, the last eighteen months or so have entailed a lot of engagement with the peer-review process.

As well as having been on the receiving end of a lot of comments and corrections of late, I have also had several opportunities to review the work of others come my way. At first I found this rather intimidating (and I do hope my first reviews were ultimately helpful to the authors), but recently I have started to enjoy the reviewing process a lot more.

End results of a lot of pain - and editing.
End results of a lot of pain – and editing.

What has helped no end in this regard is being on the receiving end of a whole range of peer-reviewer comments and taking time to reflect on the things I myself have found helpful – or at least the things that make strong criticisms a little more palatable!

With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to jot down a few thoughts – if another early-career researcher comes across them and finds them helpful too, then I will be happy.

  1. Do you have the time and expertise to do a thorough job? This may sound obvious, but the temptation of taking something on to add a line to the CV is there. I’ve come to realise it isn’t fair to either the authors or the editors to agree to review something unless I know I have the time and the knowledge to be able to do a really thorough and informed review. I want to be able to sit down quietly with the paper and write a good couple of pages of comments, rather than hashing something out on the train on the way to a meeting. On several occasions I’ve thus politely declined offers to review papers – what is helpful if you’re going to do this is to recommend someone else who might be able to (although if it’s a colleague perhaps ask them informally first so you’re not landing them with extra work!)
  1. Be specific in your comments. Just as vague, generalising statements will make a reviewer’s blood boil, so they will drive a writer revising their paper to distraction. Linked to the point above, I always feel it’s worth taking the time to go through the paper and point out exactly where my concerns lie. Some of the most helpful reviews I’ve had back have been ones where the reviewer has taken the time to give page and/or line numbers to point out the places they want me to look at again. Even if the concerns are overarching ones about the arguments/ideas of the paper as a whole, giving 2-3 specific examples of where the flaws lie can help the writer no end. Similarly, taking the time to provide references that might help the author(s) get to grips with a concept will always be well received – but try to resist the temptation to ‘promote’ one’s own work!
  1. Write clearly. There is always a distinct possibility that the author or authors are not native speakers of English. It is thus helpful to write your comments in a way that avoids ambiguity or overly-complicated language and sentence structures. I know the counter-argument to this is that the authors should be able to communicate in English to a near-perfect standard if they are submitting work for peer review. But very fine differences or nuances – and let’s face it, these are the kinds of things we are dealing with at this level of writing – may be lost on a non-native speaker if they are not spelled out explicitly. I never even used to think about this – until I was asked a difficult question in a foreign-language seminar by a native speaker of that language, that is. Since then I’ve been extremely cautious about putting my remarks across as explicitly and clearly as I can.
  1. Point out positives as well as negatives. This to me is not about being ‘nice’ or trying to soften the blow of negative remarks, rather it is about trying to ensure that the writers don’t inadvertently dilute the strongest bits of their argument during the revision process. The very nature of the review process can encourage one to focus on the negatives or ‘pick holes’ in the work of others. This is of course an absolutely necessary step in the venture of producing sound science, but I try to think that my job as a reviewer is one of helping to bring work up to standard for publication rather than stopping work being published. Signposting the positives as well as the areas for improvement is thus important. Which leads me to…
  1. Suggest where words might be cut. Anyone who has ever written a paper for peer-review is likely to have experienced two frustrations. One, when trying to get all the points and examples to fit within the word limit of the journal; and two, when trying to add all the additional explanation, clarification and argumentation necessary to respond to the reviewer comments. A reviewer can’t help with the first of these, but they might be able to help with the second. I therefore always try to suggest places where the author or authors might condense their arguments to free up space to address the issues I raise. For instance, there may be bits of contextual background that are interesting and helpful, but don’t directly add weight to the main point of the paper. There might be an idea in there that is interesting, but could be better split off and developed more fully into a separate paper. (Since I started putting a paragraph in my reviews about where words might be reduced, the pains in my knee have subsided. I take this as a tacit sign that fewer pins are now being stuck in my voodoo doll).
  1. Reflect on why you have concerns. We are all human. We all have our own opinions and values, which no matter how hard we try will always inform our judgments. I believe this applies just as much to the peer-review process as it does to anything else. It is thus vitally important to take a step back and reflect on whether you are being critical of the way an argument is made in a paper, or whether you are being critical because you personally disagree with what’s being said. I find a good way to work round this is to think ‘okay, I don’t like this particular way of thinking. Why don’t I like this school of thought, and what can this author do to make me more convinced, even if I don’t ultimately agree?’ As above, for me at least it’s about trying to use my own misgivings to push the authors to make a stronger argument, rather than policing something because I don’t agree with it.

I might keep adding to this post over time if I think of additional helpful things, and hope that this post will be taken in a spirit of collegiality. If you’re in the same boat as me and can think of any other pieces of guidance for new reviewers – or if you disagree completely with what I’ve written – then please do leave a comment below.


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