Module 4: Writing Good Reviews

Learning Objective
Introduction
Readings
Activity

 

Learning Objective

In this module, you’ll learn how to write a high-quality review that will assist the editor in making a publishing decision and help the author improve her or his work.

 

Introduction

Once you’ve been accepted as a reviewer for a journal, you will eventually receive a request to review a manuscript. The first thing you’ll need to do is read through the paper and determine whether you are actually qualified enough to provide a meaningful review. If the subject of the paper is outside of your expertise, let the editor know that this wouldn’t be a good match.

Next, make sure you have the time to do the review in a timely and thorough manner. You will always be busy, but sometimes you will be too busy to realistically take on a review, so be honest with yourself and your editor. One of the biggest headaches for editors is reviewers who promise to do a review but are slow to deliver. Don’t be that kind of reviewer!

If the paper does fit within your field of expertise and you have time to do a good job, go ahead and accept the assignment and start reviewing the paper.

Remember to go over the reviewer guidelines provided by the journal. These can be extremely helpful in writing a more focused, useful review. See, for example:

Particular areas to pay attention to include:

  • Title – does it reflect the body of the work?
  • Abstract – is it clear and accurately summarize the work?
  • Language – is it clear and comprehensible?
  • Methods – is the methodology appropriate for the work?
  • Stats – do the statistics appear accurate? Are there any errors in the calculations?
  • Results – do these reflect the findings as described by the methodology?
  • Conclusion – is it clear and provide an accurate summary?

Raff (2013) provides some helpful questions to ask yourself for many of the above sections.

In the article A Quick Guide to Writing a Solid Peer Review (2012), the authors describe 3 basic steps to follow when doing your review:

  1. Skim the entire paper and evaluate whether or not it is publishable in principle
  2. Read through the paper a second time for detail, and draft the main points of your review (drawing on the direction in your reviewer guidelines).
  3. Quickly read through the paper a third time, looking for organizational issues, and finalize the review.

In addition, Lim (2013) suggests keeping in mind the following ideas when writing up your review (see the linked article for the details):

  1. Accept the task with grace – Consider how you can make room to serve as a peer reviewer and keep our research community thriving.
  2. Be timely – Reviewers can help by not unnecessarily delaying the journal submission process
  3. Keep an open mind – Don’t allow your own disciplinary assumptions and methodological predispositions to close your mind to the possibility of alternative approaches.
  4. Provide actionable advice – Consider whether the revisions you suggest as peer reviewer are at all possible and realistic in light of the circumstances. Advice that involves the collection of more field data is unlikely to be acted upon and is perhaps even impossible given the nature of the grant cycle. Advice that points towards incorporating relevant literature, alternative frames of viewing, presenting and analyzing the data, or of structural changes to the article would however be tremendously helpful to the author.
  5. Be tactful – Try your best to express your criticisms in as tactful and constructive a manner as possible.
  6. Be magnanimous – [Don’t] let pettiness cloud your judgment of an otherwise competent piece of work, i.e. ‘this author didn’t cite MY landmark work!’?

Related to providing actionable advice, be sure to be specific in what you recommend to the author. Lowell (2002) provides some helpful examples — here’s just one:

Unhelpful comment: “This section needs work.”

Helpful Comment:
Combine the related actions into a single sentence in Methods, eg, “Flies were assigned randomly to 5 treatment groups of 25, and were weighed, sexed, and marked with non-toxic paint before behaviorial trials began”.

It is also extremely important for you to conduct your review in an ethical fashion. For example, you must maintain the confidentiality of the manuscript. This is a private document that you have been given privileged access and should under no circumstances ever be shared with your colleagues without the expressed permission of the editor. White (2005) describes some further problem areas to watch out for (see the linked article for the details):

  1. Reviewer Bias – Don’t dismiss something just because it is new or because you disagree with it.
  2. Reviewer Misconduct – Always maintain the confidentiality of the manuscript.
  3. Sloppy Peer-Review – If you agree to do a review, take the time to do a thorough job.

After you’ve written up your comments, you will typically asked to make a recommendation as to how the editor should proceed with the work. According to Haggerty (2012), common options include:

  • Accept: The manuscript is of sufficient importance and quality that it can be published essentially as is, with only minor copy-editing changes.
  • Revisions required: Changes are necessary, but these are not major. Here the editor might personally determine whether the revisions are likely to be sufficient enough that paper doesn’t need to be sent out for another round of peer reviews.
  • Revise and resubmit: The manuscript has promise, but it needs to make some significant changes before it might be publishable. Typically an article in this category would undergo a second round of reviews. (Note: Just because you have recommended “revise and resubmit” does not mean you are obliged to rereview the manuscript).
  • Reject: The manuscript is not publishable and could not be made publishable with a reasonable amount of revision.
  • Not suitable for this journal: The piece is more appropriate for a journal that focuses, for example, on different topics, methodologies, or theoretical orientations.

Once you submit your comments and recommendation to the editor, your review is done.

 

Readings

 

Activity

Several of the readings in this module discuss the importance of how you as the reviewer conduct yourself — avoiding bias, being positive with your criticism, respecting the confidentiality of the manuscript, etc. What steps would you take to ensure you are behaving as a responsible and ethical reviewer?

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