Positive peer review: Some tips and tricks
As editors, we are inundated with requests to review articles for journals at the moment. Why? It’s still the start of the year but in lots of regions globally students have not returned for the teaching semester. Academic researchers still have time to construct and write papers and submit them to journals; editors, for their part, send papers out for peer review, the process by which the academic literature is policed and written research work is assessed for publication. The view expressed by colleagues, other researchers, experts in a particular field, remains the only way by which the academic literature can be validated.
As part of our peer review training at Charlesworth Knowledge, we aim to help young researchers be as effective as possible when participating in this process. It can be daunting as well as flattering to receive a request from a journal to work on a paper; at the same time, how can you quickly and easily put together an effective set of comments to send back to an editor and be a ‘useful’ peer reviewer?
We have some suggestions to help with this, if you feel you have the time to take the review on in the first place. This is very important: conducting peer review properly takes time, at least a few hours per 1,000 words of manuscript. There’s no shame in turning down a review because of time pressures: editors will actually appreciate it!
It’s hugely important to review the work of others from a positive point-of-view. Far too many peer reviewers look at papers and think “how can I find reasons to reject this work” rather than “how can I help these authors to improve their paper”. If you are positive with the work of others, then you can expect the same in return.
Read the study three times
When working on someone else’s paper, starting to prepare a peer review, read the study over three times, first putting on the hat of someone else working in the same field in order to understand the content and focus of the work. Try to write down a series of comments to improve the study from this perspective.
Next, have a read over the paper but thinking like a competitor: be critical but remain balanced (this is hard to do) and write down a series of comments from this perspective. Finally, read the paper over for a third time but now imagine you are commenting on a manuscript written by a friend or colleague: how could the work be improved from this perspective?
It is very useful to adopt this style for writing reviews. You will have a clear series of comments from different perspectives and you can then edit your responses down into a coherent series to send back to the editor.
Be the reviewer, not the editor
At the same time, please also remember: You are not expected to act as an editor when working as a peer reviewer. Language polishing and editing papers are separate tasks that will be done by the authors themselves, by the journal team or by a specialist provider (such as Charlesworth Author Services). It’s perfectly acceptable (indeed, helpful) to write back to an editor and note “the writing in this paper is very hard to follow; I think this manuscript requires editing before it can be effectively reviewed”. An editor will really appreciate this feedback. We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve received comments back from reviewers that say “I started to correct the language in this paper, but ran out of time”.
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