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Understanding how a Peer Reviewer
Views an Article Submission

Peer review, as you may know, is the process of subjecting an academic author’s manuscript to examination by other experts in the same field. It is the most vital step in assessing whether or not the paper gets published in the concerned journal (to which the author has made a submission). This crucial step helps ensure the research integrity of not only the submitted manuscript but also of the journal and of the scientific discourse of which it is a part.

‘Mystery’ around peer review

Viewed from the outside, the peer review process can resemble a ‘black box’, an opaque system that remains largely obscure to all except the editorial office and the reviewer panel. Despite journal websites posting meticulous descriptions and even flow charts of what happens to a manuscript from the time it is submitted, precisely what takes place during the entire process is a mystery – and perhaps most mysterious of all is how reviewers view submissions.

Understanding the peer reviewer’s perspective towards a submission

Editorial offices provide their reviewers with extensive training on how to conduct reviews. With every request for review, reviewers receive not only the manuscript but also review protocols, checklists and guidelines.

As an author, you have probably had the following questions about the work of peer reviewers: 

  • Precisely how does a reviewer go about reviewing a manuscript?
  • Beyond a checklist, what do reviewers typically look for in a paper?
  • How can such knowledge help you as an author in preparing your manuscripts for submission?

Typical peer reviewer rhythm

Most reviewers develop a rhythm (routine) for reviewing manuscripts. In general, they will first go through the key components of the manuscript to get its overall sense. The key components are typically dealt with as follows, but the sequence may vary from reviewer to reviewer.

  1. Review the title and the abstract.
  2. Evaluate data as presented in tables and graphs (more on this at the end of this article).
  3. Study the results or data as presented in text. 
  4. Assess the methods used.
  5. Evaluate the references or works cited.
  6. Determine if the conclusions are justified by the data.

Overall assessment by peer reviewers

Only after picking apart all the components of a manuscript do the reviewers begin to assemble an overall assessment. At this point, they formulate their opinions on key items, including as the following.

  • Scientific merit: Novel or not, does this paper truly matter? Will it change, improve, alter, challenge or add to science (at least a little bit)? Does it help move scientific inquiry forward?
  • Novelty: Does the paper report something new? Is it new enough and important enough to be reported? Novelty and scientific merit go hand in hand. Sometimes, a paper reports something new but the finding may not hold great merit. 
  • Negative findings: Most journals will not publish negative findings; reviewers are therefore keen to determine whether a paper reports positive results.
  • Overall quality: Reviewers, editors and the scientific community enjoy reading high-quality papers. Consciously or unconsciously, as they assess a manuscript, reviewers make mental notes of the overall quality and the care and attention to detail evident in the manuscript. They find out soon enough whether authors have made the effort not only to conduct an excellent experiment but also to write an excellent paper. Quality is impossible to hide – nor is a hastily conducted experiment or a sloppily written paper. (Our new, free-to-use tool, AI Paper Check, can help you identify academic writing errors in your paper. If interested, learn more here.)

Writing and Presenting your article to align with the peer reviewer’s perspective

Now that you are familiar with how reviewers look at an article, both initially and subsequently, and what they expect, how can you write and present your article to ensure it meets and even exceeds their expectations? We provide two broad tips.

a. Present data through tables and graphs

Research scientists value data highly, especially as presented in a tabular or graphic format. To them, words are secondary. Numbers, data and charts speak more loudly to reviewers, and must be very clearly presented in any paper.

b. Pay attention to every element

Briefly put, all elements of a submission are important, and you need to treat each element carefully, striving for clarity and economy of expression throughout. Although most reviewers are forgiving and will endeavour to give authors a chance, even a small inaccuracy or inattention to detail can derail a paper.

End note

The peer review process helps ensure the research integrity of both individual manuscripts and the journals that publish them. Understanding how reviewers evaluate a manuscript and what they look for will help you as an author proactively plan your research, conduct your experiments, write up the results and submit your paper. All the best for all these activities!


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