Essentials of good peer review and good peer reviewers
The peer review process is a mechanism used by academic journals for critical discernment of submitted manuscripts and digital content.
The goals of peer review are to ensure the credibility and integrity of the academic field by identifying a submission's strengths and weaknesses, offering feedback for improvement and making sure that misleading information is not published. Peer reviewers are responsible for evaluating the merits of submissions according to their journal's criteria. Although peer review has been roundly criticised and is an imperfect system, it still offers one of the most rigorous forms of scrutiny available.
A relatively new goal of peer review is to take steps that ensure the research literature reflects and celebrates diverse voices. The review process is evolving to provide a wide-open platform for exploring and building diversity. Authors, reviewers and editors from traditionally un- or under-represented backgrounds are gaining recognition and are taking their rightful place in the research literature.
If this process is at the heart of academic publishing, what are the essential elements of a good review process? What goes into making a "good" peer reviewer? Key highlights of what to expect are provided below.
Essential elements of good peer review
A hallmark of a good peer review process is that it is conducted by peers, experts who are fully competent in the subject matter of the submitted manuscript. A sufficiently broad, diverse and representative panel of reviewers will conduct the review to provide as inclusive a reviewer base as possible. (This usually means that at minimum, two reviewers, and possibly many more, will review each submission.) Women, reviewers at earlier stages in their career, researchers from "second- or third-tier" institutions and developing nations, and even individuals from indirectly related specialties are all now contributing to a more robust review process.
A second indispensable element is confidentiality; assigned reviewers remain anonymous during and after the review. Any communication between reviewers and authors is mediated through the editorial office.
The review will be conducted in an unbiased way. Reviewers should declare any conflict of interest they have with an assigned submission, and those conflicts must be resolved, or the submission re-assigned prior to review.
A good review will provide written, sufficiently thorough, well-documented and constructive feedback for the authors. Even if the submission is rejected, reviewer feedback is intended to help the authors improve the paper specifically and strengthen the overall academic, investigative process for future endeavours.
Additionally, good review clearly determines the merits, originality and scope of the work, and gives recommendations regarding a submission's acceptance.
Lastly, a good review will note ethical concerns such as violation of standards of practice, ethical treatment of animals or human subjects or known similarities (simply, plagiarism) between the reviewed submission and other published works.
Essential elements of a good peer reviewer
Good reviewers share common characteristics.
They are timely. They create protected time specifically for reviewing manuscripts, and carefully adhere to any deadlines given by their journal. They know the importance of timely reviews.
Their attention to the schedule surfaces as a second key trait: good reviewers are highly intentional and conscientious. They will take time to provide an extensive evaluation of even brief submissions or papers that will ultimately not be accepted. Good reviewers will carefully read and follow the reviewer guidelines from their journals. Often this means time-consuming review of a submission's study design, data and references.
Of course, good reviewers necessarily possess a palpable depth of understanding and experience within their designated specialty. They will be the ones to detect subtle flaws or, conversely, nuanced novelties in the data set of their assigned papers. Good reviewers will say "No" to reviewing papers for which they have little or no experience or time to review, or for papers for which they have any conflicts of interest.
Finally, they are collegial; if they know people who are better suited to reviewing a given paper, they will gladly inform the editorial office.
A good reviewer is simultaneously a journal editor's best friend and gatekeeper, as well as the best advocate and anonymous mentor for authors. At the end of the day, after giving countless hours to a review and writing comments, a good reviewer will admit that he or she was the one who benefitted most from the process.
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