Thoughts on peer review: my personal check-list for authors

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Publons logo

Since a couple of weeks, I have been an Advisor for Publons, an online community where you can get credit for pre-publication peer review, and get to choose which information you would like to share (e.g. displaying only the journals you reviewed for, not the actual papers). You can see my reviewer profile here. Because of this new role, I will post some thoughts on peer review here every now and then.

As a peer reviewer I like to do a good job in going over another scientist’s paper to make sure it will be a good addition to the ever-growing amount of scientific literature. I will check for the quality of writing, design, execution, and interpretation. But I will also look for small errors or omissions that might become a pain after publication, such as referring to the wrong figures, omission of method details, missing abbreviation explanation, or switched panels in graphs.

If you are the author of a new paper, and ready to send it out for peer review, you already know the requirements of the journal you are submitting your paper too (“Instructions for authors”). Here are a couple of items to check for that might not be on that list, but that will make the job of a peer reviewer much easier. It will also brighten their mood. The last person you want to review your paper is a reviewer who is in a bad mood.

  • Line numbers: Even if the journal does not require this, please, please, please include line numbers in your manuscript. Continuous line numbers (as opposed to starting with 1 at every new page) are the best, if allowed by the journal. It is so much easier for me to refer to line 369, than to write “In the third paragraph on page 15, in the sentence that starts with “In addition”…”
  • Check the figure numbering. Of course, errors will happen, and your PI asked you to add that one figure at the very last moment, but it is really nice if all referrals to figures are correct.
  • Check the reference numbering. See Figure numbering.
  • Methods – Pretend to be a person who is not familiar with your lab. Could you repeat the experiments roughly the same way as you did based in the information in the Methods? If not, is there additional information that you should share? Did you define all the buffers, manufacturers, PCR programs, number of subjects, samples, reads?
  • Limit the referrals. In the methods, do you refer for something simple to another paper, and does that paper refer to yet another paper? Don’t make the reviewer or the reader look up something simple, such as a primer sequence or the name of a DNA extraction method in another paper. It’s fine to refer, but put the essential information in your manuscript.Don’t piss off the reviewer or the reader!
  • Availability of raw data. The raw data should be available for the reviewer. Don’t make them have to ask you for the sequence or expression data; make them available in a public database that is accessible at the time of peer review.
  • General order in graphs. If you have multiple groups of samples, please show them all in the same order in every graph, and choose a logical order. E.g. children on the left, adults on the right. Or, control on the left, treated group on the right. Oral on the left, gastric in the middle, and stool on the right.
  • Order of the colors of bar/column graphs. Okay, this is one of my pet peeves that other people probably find very non-interesting, but I will include it here anyway. check if the legend/color key is in the same order as the in the graph.  In the example below, the graph has the light blue at the bottom, and the brown at the top, but in the key on the right, the order is the opposite. This makes these graphs harder to interpret. Figure taken from Vincent: A Python to Vega Translator: Charts Library. By the way, I really like this color scheme. Just not the order.


These are just some common issues that I often encounter during peer review (other than the bigger issues, of course, such as over-interpretation of data or missing control groups). Do other reviewers have other pet peeves with manuscripts that they want to share here? Please leave them in the comments! I am looking forward to see more.



3 thoughts on “Thoughts on peer review: my personal check-list for authors

  1. Dear Elisabeth,

    thanks for your posts!

    It would be nice if you could write one on how to do a good peer review as a referee? Usually, journals point out some guidelines; however, given your experience in these matters as gleaned from your PubIons profile, it would be nice to hear your thoughts on how to do proper justice when you review someone’s papers.

    Thanks again!

    P.S.: Btw, to avoid spam 3+8 = eleven; would 3 + -14 = eleven work as an answer too?


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