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One needs to be time-efficient in doing peer review. If one followed the lengthy guidelines provided by some journals to do peer-review it could take days. I suggest it should not take more than the time to read the paper twice and write up one’s comments, so perhaps 1-3 hours and 1-3 pages in length. I ask myself what makes the paper worth publishing – is the novelty clear and supported by the results? This requires the authors to have clearly stated and justified the novelty of the paper, and presented the figures clearly. If this is not the case then I recommend rejection and do not waste further time on the paper. If yes to this question, I then comment on details in the paper – suggesting any improvements to tables, figures and text.

Remember your report is to the Editor, not the authors. So it helps to first tell the editor why the paper should, or should not, be published in your view. If probably publishable, you then say if you recommend any minor or major revisions or. Recommending “Major revision” means you would want to review the revised version before making a final decision.

When to do peer review?

I only review papers or research grant proposals that seem interesting and so I might learn something. Thus, I am already familiar with the subject and can judge the accuracy of the literature citations. Any further checking I need to do is also likely to benefit my own knowledge.

I decline when I do not have time, if they do not interest me, or have a badly written abstract. A poorly written abstract is a sign that the rest of the paper may be poorly presented.

If you get a request to do a review, decide quickly because otherwise the editor is waiting and uncertain whether to invite more referees.

Publons is a good and free way to keep track of your reviews and roles as an editor. It shows you are reciprocating the service your peers provide in refereeing your papers. There is another system for getting credit for doing peer review called Reviewer Credits. It is more work for reviewers to use than Publons because you have to enter your review details manually, but apparently one can earn credits to get discounts from collaborating journals. However, what these discounts are is unclear.

What is not a referees job?

Some journals may ask referees if they think a paper is suitable for their journal, or for referees to comment on whether the paper matches the style and formatting of the journal. In my view, the editor should not waste referees time if a paper is not within the scope of the journal, and the tedium of formatting is the job of the journal (it is their format and style after all), not the referees. The referee’s focus should be on the scientific merit and accuracy of the paper, i.e., how the paper advances the field.

How not to peer review

The commonest problems are reviews that are late or wanting more analyses just because they would be “interesting”. I’ve seen reviews, as an author or editor, that were superficial (useless), focused on formatting and writing instead of the science, rude, nasty, mistaken because they had not fully read the paper before making criticisms, and wanting a different study. So even when irritated by aspects of a paper, be polite and constructive.

Further reading

How to review a scientific paper

How to review a paper

How to write a thorough peer review – Nature

How to become good at peer review: a guide for young scientists

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