If you regularly write manuscripts and submit these to peer-reviewed journals you have the moral obligation to also peer review manuscripts for other scientists. In addition, good peer reviews should screen out bad science. So peer reviewing is important.
I wrote a blog previously on why it is often difficult to find peer reviewers. This difficulty can result in long delays of the peer review process and manuscripts are sometimes even rejected because no peer reviewers could be found. You would hate it if that happened to you. So once you receive an invitation to peer review, read the abstract –which is usually provided with the invitation- and consider writing the review. Is it within your expertise? Also make sure you have no conflict of interest before accepting: such as being a close collaborator (I once received a request to peer review an article on which I was an author…).
After accepting invitations to review manuscripts
The peer reviewer is expected to critically read and evaluate a manuscript in their specialty field, and then provide a respectful, constructive, and honest feedback to the authors.
Once you accept an invitation to review a manuscript here is how to proceed. Some journals provide clear guidelines on what aspects you need to assess, other journals don´t provide guidelines at all. Often there are at least some aspects that need to be scored on a scorecard.
Start by reading the article, and while you are reading ask yourself some questions and make notes:
- What is the main question addressed by the research?
- Is the research relevant and interesting?
- Is the topic original? Does it add to the subject area compared with other published material?
- Is the paper well written? Is the text clear and easy to read?
- Are the conclusions consistent with the evidence presented? Do they address the main question posed?
- If the author disagrees with the current consensus, do they have a case?
- What do the tables or figures add to the paper? Do they aid understanding/are they clear? Or are they superfluous?
After this first read through, you should be able to determine whether the manuscript should be rejected outright or not. Note that even if you think the article should be rejected outright, you need to write a review so the authors understand why.
Now write a short paragraph on the research question, the goals, approach, and conclusions of the manuscript. The next paragraph should focus on the contribution to the field, whether the methods used are appropriate, and whether the data support the conclusions.
Identify major flaws
Next, determine whether there are any major flaws, such as:
- a conclusion that is not based on the evidence presented
- a methodological error
- an inappropriate number of samples/individuals analyzed
- insufficient controls and/or control experiments
- inappropriate sampling (for instance: not the relevant time points)
- Statistically non-significant variations presented as significant
- data in tables or figures unclear
- insufficient data
- plagiarized text, fraudulent data, or ethical issues => if you suspect any of these contact the editor without proceeding with the review.
Write down under the heading: ´major problems´ a numbered list of the major flaws, indicating exactly where you found them, what the problem is, and how this may be remedied by the authors (if possible). Be specific in your comments.
Identify minor flaws
Read the manuscript again and note down any:
- places where the text is unclear
- errors or invalid arguments
- does the title reflect the subject of the paper?
- does the abstract reflect the content of the paper correctly? Are all claims in the conclusion section of the abstract supported by the data?
- is the text overall well written? If not, make a note to the editor so the editor can ask that the language be improved by a professional editor.
- if there are only minor typos or mistakes you may want to indicate these so the authors can correct them
Write down under the heading: ´minor problems´ a numbered list of the minor flaws, indicating exactly where you found them (Section, page numbers, line numbers), what the problem is, and how this may be fixed. Minor flaws would be typos, ambiguous text that can be improved, etc.
Comments to the author:
Insert here the paragraphs you wrote above, as well as the numbered lists of major and minor flaws.
Do NOT write down here whether the paper should be rejected, accepted, is publishable, or should be revised. Those comments belong in the comments to the editor section.
Comments to the editor:
In the comments to the editor remark on any sections you were unable to assess because they were outside your expertise (for instance a methodology, or statistical analyses).
Write down your recommendation (reject, major revision, minor revision, accept) and the reason for this recommendation.
After submitting your peer review you can add it to your profile in the Publons database so you can get recognition for your efforts to review manuscripts.