Peer review 101, Part 1: How to critically read a manuscript

This post is part of an online article I wrote for Publons. Publons is an online peer review management system where you can keep track of your peer reviews, and compare your records to others. I wrote the article as a helpful guide for beginning peer reviewers. The article consists of four parts:

  1. How to critically read a manuscript
  2. Writing the peer review
  3. Submitting the peer review
  4. Managing peer review requests

Peer review is an essential part of science. It is the part of the scientific process where our peers will have a chance to review our work, check it, comment on it, and – most importantly – determine whether it’s good enough to become a permanent part of the scientific legacy. At the same time, it is also one of the most dreaded parts of science, both for authors, whose work will be scrutinized or could be rejected by competitors, as well as for reviewers, whose inboxes are filled with a never-ending stream of peer review requests.

How to critically read a manuscript

So how do you write a good peer review? To help the inexperienced peer-reviewer, I’ve made a list of general questions to ask when you are reading the paper. Asking these questions should help you form an opinion about the paper, even if you have no idea where to start. It’s the list that I wished I had access to when I started my first peer review. Here we go:

  • Do you have a conflict of interest when reviewing this paper? Do you collaborate with these authors, are they your personal friends, or are they direct competitors? Have you reviewed (and rejected) this paper before? If so, you need to decline this peer review and let the editors know.
  • Do the title and abstract cover the main aspects of the work, would it spark interest to the right audience?
  • Is the Introduction easy to follow for most readers of this particular journal? Does it cite the appropriate papers? Does it provide a hypothesis or aim of the study?
  • Does the Methods section provide enough details for the general reader to repeat the experiments?
  • If you skip the Methods, does the Results section give the right amount of detail to understand the basic details of the experiments?
  • Does the Results refer to the figures in a logical order? Do the numbers in the tables add up correctly? Are any figures/tables mislabeled or unclear?
  • Given the data that was obtained in this study, did the authors perform all the logical analyses? Did they include the proper controls?
  • Does the Discussion address the main findings, and does it give proper recognition to similar work in this field?
  • In general, is the paper easy to follow and does it have a logical flow? Are there any language issues?
  • Did the authors make all their data (e.g. sequence reads, code, questionnaires used) available for the readers?
  • Is this paper novel and an advancement of the field, or have other people done very similar work?
  • Finally (and hopefully you will never have to answer yes to any of these question): Does the paper raise any ethical concerns? Any suspicion of plagiarism (text or experiments), duplicated or tampered images, lack of IRB approval, unethical animal experiments, or “dual use of research concern”?

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