Being asked to peer review for the first time is immensely gratifying—what greater proof is needed that your work is out there, being read and appreciated and getting your name known in the field. However, if like most of us you have yourself experienced the cutting tongue of a reviewer in the past, being faced with the responsibility of being on the other end of the process can seem terrifying.
The first time I sat down to prepare a peer-review report, I inundated myself with so many self-doubts that I nearly backed out of the commitment altogether (a very bad idea, by the way—it is massively inconvenient for the editors and they WILL remember). Was I really smart enough to look at someone else’s work? Do I actually know anything useful about my field beyond my own research? What if I am too harsh and ruin someone’s career? What if I am not harsh enough, and the editors laugh at me? What if my report-writing is so quirky that the author immediately knows who I am and hunts me down with vengeance in mind? That last one was ridiculous enough to pull me out of the downward spiral and remind me why I had agreed in the first place.
Peer review is essential. Without it, the whole structure of academia would crumble. Ask any journal editor in any field, and he or she will tell you that peer reviewers are increasingly difficult to find, while the number of publications being submitted seems to be mushrooming at an alarming rate. With this in mind, instead of crawling under a rock to hide, follow these simple steps to write the best peer-review report ever.
Move from Macro to Micro
To many first-time reviewers get caught up in the tiny details of grammar, expression, and formatting. While these details are important and can be a good gauge for the level of care and revision the author has already invested, they are not a good starting place for an assessment of the most important aspects of a paper: the thesis, the research, and the originality.
Begin your edit by looking at these macro-level concerns. Does the article present a clear thesis that accurately outlines the substance of the paper? Does that thesis represent a new and valuable contribution to the field and/or fill an existing research gap? If so, does the author clearly articulate that gap/contribution? Finally, is the argument substantiated with sufficient and relevant research and adequate dialog with the existing voices in the field?
If you cannot find any significant issues in the above areas, the paper is almost certainly good enough for either an “accept” or an “accept with revisions” decision. Whether you decide to recommend “accept with revisions” or “revise and resubmit (R&R)” will now largely come down to the clarity and organization of the piece—can a reader actually follow the argument?
Only once you have addressed these issues should you spare a brief comment for grammar, expression, and formatting. If you have recommended the editors accept the paper or that the author R&R, you can recommend that the paper be edited for these concerns if needed, providing a few indications of particular problem areas. If you have recommended the editors decline the paper, you might want to make a similar suggestion, indicating how heavily these issues weighed in on your recommendation.
Be Constructive, Concrete, and Specific
Too many reviewers fall into the easy trap of simply pointing out the negatives—this paper lacks a clear thesis, this paper fails to engage sufficiently with x and y key sources, this paper doesn’t sufficiently explain how the data was collected, and so on. While such comments are helpful to the editors in deciding whether to follow your recommendation, they are not helpful to a writer who will almost certainly want to revise the paper for later publication.
Where you do need to offer a criticism, therefore, it is important to make it constructive. As well as pointing out where the author has gone wrong, provide a concrete, actionable suggestion for how they can improve. For example, as well as saying, “this paper fails to engage sufficiently with x and y key sources,” you might want to add, “we recommend the author read publications a and b, and pay especial attention to the debate they present regarding m; it has a direct bearing on the author’s assertion in the first paragraph of section 2.”
Notice that in the above example, we don’t tell the author what bearing publications a and b should have on the author’s argument—only that they should be aware of and engage with those sources. Remember, being a reviewer makes you a figure of authority and, as such, you have influence that must be used with caution. Because reviewers are often established authorities in their given field, it can be easy for them to shape the future of the field to their liking through their review recommendations; however, academia thrives on conflicting opinions, alternative views, and ongoing debates.
A peer-review report is not the place to voice dissenting opinions and subjective objections. A thesis can be a strong thesis even if it directly contradicts the beautifully presented thesis in your previous publication. Provide feedback only on the quality of the argument presented and try to remember that without new takes, novel approaches, and dissenting voices, there can be no progress. Keep an open mind and examine your own judgments critically. If you do want to debate with the author, there is always the option of publishing a reply of your own.
We all know the sinking feeling that Reviewer B’s report inevitably brings. Having a paper be turned down is bad enough but being told that it was barely worth reading can be soul-crushing. Remember that we are all still learning and that every work is a work in progress for most of its life. Be kind in your language and emphasize growth and improvement rather than criticisms.
Make a Clear Recommendation
Finally, do the editors a favor by making your recommendation about the paper crystal clear. Editors often need to condense your report into a few sentences to send to the author, explaining the journal’s decision. Make it easy for them by clearly stating your reasons as well as your recommendation. If you feel the paper should be rejected, provide a bullet-pointed summary of the reasons for that recommendation. Alternatively, be sure to be clear about whether you are recommending “accept with revisions” (for minor corrections to an otherwise solid paper) or “revise and resubmit” (for promising papers that need substantial revision to be publishable), and why you feel the paper falls on one side or the other. In the very rare circumstance that you recommend the paper be unconditionally accepted, you may want to bullet point the strong points—it’s always nice to make an author’s day.
So, there you have it—the basics to writing a peer-review report that won’t make the author or the editors (or you!) cry. Go forth and peer-review with confidence!