As many of us enter the world of science having little experience in peer review it is relevant to describe it in more detail and provide some useful tips about the process. By the time some of us finish university, we might have some general idea and knowledge about how peer review works by submitting own manuscripts and, hopefully, getting published. However, what happens if a person is about to become a reviewer oneself? This changes perspectives considerably. Thus, many early career scientists who become reviewers have not only insufficient experience, but also lack knowledge on the matter. That is why it is important to share some useful insights on how reviewers’ work looks like and on what one should be focused on when going through a big number of submitted texts in order to choose the best ones.
First of all, what is peer review? Well, it is a decision making process, which involves authors and editors. The latter makes sure that the texts you find in a journal are valuable, thus worth reading. To achieve this a considerable number of articles are being reviewed and feedback is being provided to the authors. Why? To improve one’s work and then hopefully publish it at a later stage (Moher & Jadad, 2003; Wager, Godlee, & Jefferson, 2002; Vintzileos & Ananth, 2010). That is in theory. In practice, peer review process is generally poorly understood and is under constant scrutiny which brings more and more controversy into the field (Moher & Jadad, 2003). Most of all, how does this process look like and how can it be improved? What can novice peer reviewers learn in order to be effective in their work, having in mind that they are the most prominent part of the process by assessing the merits of an article? There is little guidance that can be found and a limited number of sources and training for novice peer reviewers. To make it easier though, let’s follow some useful tips and try to apply them into our everyday work (Moher & Jadad, 2003; Wager, Godlee, & Jefferson, 2002; Vintzileos & Ananth, 2010).
Most of all, if you are invited to do the peer review – do not rush with your decision whether to accept or decline this challenge. Usually journal editors will expect that you will make your decision quickly. Also there will be a specific period of time/ deadline which you would have to meet. At this point ask yourself whether: you have time for additional tasks; are sufficiently familiar with the content area/ methods to produce a well written review; there is a conflict of interest of any kind. If your answer to two first questions above is no and to the third one yes – withdraw. Do it no matter how tempting an opportunity may be. However, if you will feel confident enough to meet all the requirements and deadlines – go ahead! Just bear in mind few tips which might be helpful for you to be more effective and productive (Moher & Jadad, 2003; Wager, Godlee, & Jefferson, 2002; Vintzileos & Ananth, 2010):
1) Plan your tasks – Peer review takes time (for a novice even up to 8 -12 hours!). It is quite obvious that it may be difficult to accomplish that in one go. What can you do? It is simple: plan it, do it, leave it, review it, and submit it. The first step is your key to success here.
2) Follow journal guidelines – Most journals will provide you with forms and instructions on what kind of feedback they are expecting. They will include things such as: the prominence of the research question, the findings’ uniqueness, the paper’s clarity, suggested future directions and, what’s most important, whether it is suitable for publication. How to remain objective when conducting a peer review in such a way? A considerable number of tools might be of help here, like, for example, sourcing and screening systematic reviews on the same topic or using tools which may help you to create a systematic, evidence based review (i.e. CONSORT).
3) Communication with Editor and Author(s) – This part is quite important. Your work is not only helpful for editors’ decision process on whether to accept or reject a paper, but as well as for the authors themselves. You need to remember that what and how you write the review will determine whether the text: will be published, considered for publication after some adjustments, or rejected. The feedback authors will get will influence their further actions and decisions on what to do with their findings.
- It is useful to summarize a paper in a short paragraph. By that you show to the authors you have understood what you have been reviewing and give an essence of the paper to the editors.
- Provide constructive criticism. Feedback you will give to the authors should be, by all means, objective and professional. Avoid giving comments about grammar, punctuation or the language itself. Make the editor aware of that and be sensitive to the authors who are not a native speaker of the language in which the manuscript is submitted.
- Conclusions. Make sure that your comments are justified and related to the objectives of the study.
- Peer review is not an opportunity for revenge. If this process is an open one and you are aware who wrote the paper or you got to learn that in a different way, remember to focus your comments on the content, not the person. Bear in mind that disparaging comments are inappropriate and editors always make sure they will not reach the authors themselves.
If you have received any help at any stage of your work it should be acknowledged, so the names of co-reviewers should be listed as well. Moreover, always label the source of your comments – distinguish whether they come from you or from somewhere else. What is more, keep received manuscripts confidential at all times. Though, getting to know new findings and new suggested research directions may create some stimulating thoughts and then new ideas do not try to contact the authors while the process is still live (Moher & Jadad, 2003; Wager, Godlee, & Jefferson, 2002; Vintzileos & Ananth, 2010).
What about your performance? After you submit your review you might be eager to get some feedback. How to receive it? It’s simple. Compare your review with other ones and learn from each other. However, do not forget to ask the editor for some feedback as well. This will only help you develop your skills, knowledge and gain experience (Moher & Jadad, 2003; Wager, Godlee, & Jefferson, 2002; Vintzileos & Ananth, 2010).
Unfortunately, there is a limited access to formal trainings for novice peer reviewers, but the number of resources which are accessible online is growing. One example is a guide which was created in cooperation with around 40 editors, early career researchers, journalists, and grant body representatives. What do I have in mind? A guide for early career researchers: „Standing for Science 3. Peer Review. The Nuts and Bolts”. It will give you a lot of useful, detailed information on how the process works, show its limitations and what role the peer review has in the society. It is not based on theory but sheer practice. You can find advice from experienced reviewers, editors and scientists from various fields. Is it worth reading? Yes, yes, & yes. Not only you will learn more about the peer review process itself from a practical perspective, but also get to learn more about various trainings opportunities, different point of views on the process, and its role in science. Moreover some of the main controversial issues are approached here as well (Sense about science, 2012).
Peer review is an art. One that needs to be mastered not only by gaining relevant experience, but also by receiving and acknowledging ongoing feedback and training. It surely takes time to become an effective, well respected reviewer, but it is definitely worth the effort.
Moher, D. & Jadad, A. R. (2003). How to peer review a manuscript. In F. Godlee & T. Jefferson, Peer Review in Health Sciences (pp. 183-190). London, UK: BMJ Publishing Group. Retrieved from http://www.bmj.com/sites/default/files/attachments/resources/2011/07/moher.pdf
Sense about Science (2012). Standing for Science 3. Peer Review. The Nuts and Bolts. Retrieved from http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/resources/99/Peer-review_The-nuts-and-bolts.pdf
Smith, R. (2003). The future of peer review. In: F. Godlee & T. Jefferson, Peer Review in Health Sciences (pp. 329 -346 ). London UK: BMJ Publishing Group. Retrieved from http://www.bmj.com/sites/default/files/attachments/resources/2011/07/smith.pdf
Wager, E., Godlee, F., & Jefferson (2002). How to Survive Peer Review. London, UK: BMJ Publishing Group.
Vintzileos, A. M., & Ananth, C. V. (2010). The Art of Peer-Reviewing an Original Research Paper. Important Tips and Guidelines. American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, 29, 513–518.