Peer review 101, Part 2: Writing the peer review

This post is part of an online article I wrote for Publons. Publons is an online 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

2. Writing the peer review

As I am reading the manuscript for the first time, I will have a text editor open in which I immediately write down small comments on specific parts of the manuscript, such as a typo in line 15 or an unclear sentence in the introduction. While I go through the paper, I will start to write down more general thoughts as well, such as remarks about the length of the introduction or a misinterpretation of results. After reading the whole paper, I will then re-read the abstract to see if it correctly captured hypothesis, experiments, results and interpretation. At the end of my read-through, I try to structure my peer review into three parts.

  • Summary: A couple of sentences describing what the authors did, in my own words. This is especially helpful to refresh your memory when you will be asked to do another round of review on a paper you already reviewed before. Here, I will also give a general opinion about the paper, without mentioning if I think it should be rejected or accepted with edits.
  • General comments: Some broad thoughts about the paper, such as: novelty of the findings, length of discussion, order of results, any concerns about data analysis or interpretation, language issues, etc. I will usually have about 3-5 numbered bullet points here.
  • Specific comments. A numbered list of issues that refer to a very specific portion of the text or figures. Here, I might point out typos, missing definitions or abbreviations, unclear sentences, a missing reference, or suggestions to improve a figure or table. Usually, this part of my review will have about 20 remarks (but sometimes much more!). Even if this part is a long list, most of these points should be very easy to address by the authors.

It is important to number your remarks, making it easier for the authors to respond to each one of them.

In your review, the most important thing to keep in mind is to remain friendly and reasonable. You should feel no regret publishing your review under your full name. On the other hand, you do have the right to ask the authors to make primary data publicly available, perform some small and easy additional experiments or analysis, or change the layout and order of their graphs. Depending on the scope of the journal, it is however not reasonable in most cases to ask the authors to do large amounts of additional work. If you think the science is good, it should be published. There is always a need for additional experiments, but that can be put into another paper.

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