Career advice: how to peer review a paper

Detail, clarity and a constructive approach: all these are key to a helpful review, writes Sophie Inge

February 22, 2018
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Best in show: always try to find something that you can genuinely praise

Congratulations, you’ve been invited by the editors of a prestigious journal to submit a peer review.

Like any good academic, you’ve done your homework: you’ve read the journal’s guidelines for reviewers and understand – more or less – what’s expected of you.

Now comes the hard part. In your hands, you hold the result of months – sometimes years – of hard work. Whether you think the paper is riddled with errors or a work of genius, your response needs to be careful and appropriate. 

Here, academics share their views on how best to go about conducting a peer review.

Be detailed and clear
Offering only a few lines of commentary is helpful neither to the person who wrote the paper nor to the editor who is trying to evaluate whether it should be published, said palaeontologist Jon Tennant, who completed a PhD at Imperial College London last year.

“It’s not Amazon – peer reviews are supposed to be in-depth critical analyses,” he said. Don’t have time? Then don’t take on the responsibility. “Only accept if you have time to do so. Otherwise you just end up slowing things down, and frustrating the editors and authors,” Dr Tennant said.

The major challenge with peer reviewing is making what you say reflect what you actually mean, so that it’s readily understood by the recipient, said Edd Pitt, lecturer in higher education and academic practice at the University of Kent.

“After all,” he added, “the system does not allow for ongoing dialogue and clarification between author and reviewer. So it’s vital to the recipient [for the review] to be clear, professional, useful and [include] something they can address to make the article publishable.”

Be open to something that’s new and different
When you’ve been studying a subject for most of your adult life, it can be tempting to dismiss new ideas.

This is a big mistake, according to long-time journal editor Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education.

“Be open to something that’s new and different, or something that reworks the familiar in a different way,” he said. “New insights are the lifeblood of academic fields.”

New knowledge can take many forms, Professor Marginson said – whether it’s empirical data and interpretation; conceptual or theoretical advance; or a normative essay that changes the way we think about a topic. 

Review as you would wish to be reviewed
The point of a peer review is to be constructive – and this can’t be achieved with hurtful language.

“The last time [I submitted a paper] I had a set of three reviews, and one was utterly devastating,” Helen Kara, an independent researcher, told Times Higher Education. “The reviewer said: ‘I couldn’t find anything to praise,’ before going on to damn my work in detail in a range of hurtful ways.”

By contrast, the other two reviews were constructive: helpful in pointing out minor flaws as well as giving praise where it was due. “It was as if the first reviewer had read a different text,” said Dr Kara. “I knew my work was far from perfect. I also knew it didn’t deserve a negative, abusive review.”

So constructive criticism is fine, but always try to find something you can genuinely praise. “This helps a writer to understand what they can relax about and where they need to focus their efforts,” Dr Kara said.

Be objective
It’s easy to reject research out of hand if you don’t agree with the author’s argument.

“But peer review is more about an objective appreciation of the research and whether or not it makes a contribution towards moving the field forward,” said Dr Pitt.

It’s equally important to be aware of confirmation bias, warned Sanjeev Krishna, professor of molecular parasitology and medicine at St George's, University of London, who has reviewed hundreds of papers over his career. “For example, if you think something is really good because it agrees with what you think rather than challenging what you think.”

Other conflicts of interest include rivalries between groups. “You may not be involved directly but you may have some relationship with them or a point of view,” Professor Krishna said. “So when looking at a piece, you have to constantly tell yourself to just focus on the quality of the work. Everything else is secondary.”

Leave your ego at the door
You may have got full marks in all your spelling tests at school, but peer reviews are not the best time to show off, according to Randy McIntosh, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

“Unless you are asked to, don’t comment on typos, spelling and grammar,” he said. “That’s the job of the editorial staff and the authors.

“But if there are serious grammar issues that compromise your understanding [of the text], you should say so.”

Similarly, don’t make recommendations about acceptance or rejection, Dr Tennant advised: “That’s the editor’s job.”

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