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Handling Peer Review

Tips to Excel at Peer Review


Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

January 2022

Peer review is an important process in academic publishing, and researchers are involved in both writing the manuscript and evaluating the quality and validity of the research. If you are invited as a peer reviewer, then it is expected that your commentary will enhance the writing and guide the authors toward successful publication. Peer review is usually voluntary, which means that good reviewers can be difficult to recruit. Despite this, peer reviewers are held in high regard, and reviewing papers is a great way to flesh out a curriculum vitae. Thus, it is in every researcher’s interest to hone their reviewing skills.

Following these basic tips will increase your chances of being invited as a peer reviewer.

Review the abstract and conclusion

Before acceptance, take a few minutes to read the abstract and conclusion. This will give you an idea of your interest in reviewing the paper and if there are any outstanding conflicts of interest that would arise if you agreed to review. If after reading the abstract or conclusion you do not find interest in the work, it is perfectly acceptable to decline the paper. Authors want someone who is intrigued by their study, and someone who is interested will likely provide better feedback than someone who is not. The worst-case scenario is agreeing to review a paper and then finding out that you are unqualified or disinterested, which can lead to a subpar review.

Respond to invitations promptly

Time is valuable. Authors can often wait several months for their paper to be accepted between peer review and revisions. Not responding in a timely fashion further adds to this delay, and a swift response is appreciated by both authors and journal editors. If you are in demand as a reviewer, you may feel completely swamped with requests. This is reasonable, but communication with the journal goes a long way to setting expectations and boundaries. Do not feel obligated to accept all of the reviews that come your way; it is important to understand your own limitations and act accordingly.

Request an extension as soon as possible

Journal editors understand that making the time for peer review is not simple. If you need extra time, it is always best to request an extension sooner rather than later. Ideally, an extension is requested before the initial acceptance. An editor’s nightmare is to receive an extension request just before (or on) the deadline; this is one reason why editors build in time for delays! Life happens. Just be sure to communicate and give the journal the most advanced notice.

Use constructive criticism

Wherever possible, highlight what the authors do well in addition to improvements that need to be made. It can be discouraging to read only negative thoughts about your research. When suggesting an improvement, start off with what the study excels in. For example: “The data are presented very well, and the authors do a good job of including the relevant literature in the discussion. However, it is necessary to mention how the novelty of this study could influence the field on a broader scope. Please discuss why the results are important for future research.” A harsh criticism indicates what the paper lacks; a constructive criticism highlights both strengths and weaknesses.

Minimize Bias

It is best to stick to the results of the study and not introduce any outside values (be they moral, social, political, or otherwise) to either support or contradict the author’s conclusions. It is impossible to entirely remove bias, but we can take steps to reduce it, such as recognizing certain biases and being self-reflective.

Do not copyedit

Substance is what matters the most. Concentrate your review on the structure, content, scientific rigor and ideas of the paper. Avoid making too many comments about the language. However, if there are many issues regarding language and style, then notify the editor. If you believe the paper requires professional editing, then it is acceptable to include this comment in the review.

Be realistic

Consider the journal to which the authors are publishing. Ask the authors only reasonable demands. For example, re-designing all of the experiments and completing entirely new trials would take a considerable amount of time and resources. The best peer reviewers consider the limitations of the authors and the study and suggest actions that the researchers can realistically achieve. Asking the authors to present data in a different way, add specific references, and rewrite certain sections are all reasonable requests.

Be positive and professional

It is possible you may be reading and reviewing a poorly written paper. The study may not be groundbreaking. The manuscript may need a great deal of work to achieve publication. Remember, it is not the job of the reviewer to get the paper into a publishable state, it is only to make suggestions to improve the paper’s chances at publication. Insulting the author’s abilities is never okay, and rudeness only makes the author’s job more difficult and discourages them. The best peer reviewers will outline the steps needed to improve the paper in a polite and professional tone.

Check out our other resources

If you want a behind-the-scenes look at peer review from a journal editor’s perspective, LetPub conducted a webinar titled An Editor's Guide to Successful Peer Review in 2020. This valuable discussion can provide further insights into improving your own peer review skills. For more information about peer review, head over to LetPub’s Learning Nexus.

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