How to Provide Peer Review of scientific publications

1. RESPONDING TO A REQUEST FOR PEER REVIEW

Once you have become an author, you may receive invitations to be a peer reviewer—in other words, to evaluate work by others in your field. Journal edi­tors may ask you to review papers being considered for publication. Funding agencies may ask you to review grant proposals. Book editors may ask you to review the proposals or manuscripts for books. Given that preparing peer reviews can entail much time and effort, why should you accept such invita­tions? And when should you decline them?

Peer review helps editors decide what to publish, and it helps authors improve their work. Similarly, peer review of grant proposals helps funding agencies make sound decisions and helps scientists refine their research. Others in your field provide this service to you when they review items you have written. Being a good citizen in the scientific community includes providing this service in return.

In addition, peer reviewing can have other benefits. It can help you keep up in your field and maintain your critical skills. Listing entities for which you peer review can enhance your curriculum vitae. Peer reviewing for a journal can lead to serving on its editorial board and becoming an editor of the journal. Although peer reviewing generally is unpaid, sometimes reviewers are paid or otherwise compensated. For example, reviewers of book manuscripts commonly receive a little money in appreciation of their efforts; if they prefer, sometimes they receive books from the publisher instead.

Sometimes, though, you should refuse the invitation to peer review or ask the editor whether to refuse it. If you lack time to complete the review adequately by the deadline, decline the opportunity and, if possible, suggest other poten­tial reviewers. Also, if you believe you lack sufficient expertise to prepare a sound review, inform the editor. The editor may then ask you to suggest poten­tial reviewers whom you consider well suited. Or the editor may explain that you were approached because of your expertise regarding an aspect of the research and that other reviewers will evaluate other aspects.

Inform the editor if you have conflicts of interest—that is, anything in your background that could interfere, or appear to interfere, with your objectivity in doing the review. For instance, if you have collaborated with any of the authors, if you have a financial interest relating to the research, or if an author is your friend or enemy or former spouse, tell the editor. Some journals routinely ask potential reviewers to state anything that might be a conflict of interest. Even if the journal does not, inform the editor if you think you might have one. The editor can then decide whether to retain you as a peer reviewer while keeping the item in mind or whether to seek a different reviewer.

2. PEER REVIEWING A SCIENTIFIC PAPER

If you are a peer reviewer, realize that the item being reviewed is confidential. Do not reveal its content. Do not discuss with those around you the authors’ writing skills (or lack thereof). Do not ask others to collaborate on the review without first obtaining permission from the editor. If there is a valid reason for collaboration—for instance, if a colleague could better evaluate part of the research, or if collaborating on the review could help educate a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow—the editor is likely to grant permission. However, per­mission should be sought, not assumed.

Journals commonly use online systems for submission of peer reviews. Whether or not it does so, a journal is likely to seek two types of input from each reviewer: a confidential evaluation for use by the editors only, and com­ments for the editors to share with the authors. Some journals supply forms for these purposes. The form for feedback to editors may contain rating scales and provide room for comments about the quality of the work and whether the work should be published. Examples of items that the rating scales may address are the importance of the research question, the originality of the work, the validity of the methods used, the soundness of the conclusions, the clarity of the writing, and the suitability for the journal’s readership.

Your comments for the editor to share with the authors typically should begin by saying what you perceive as the main strengths and main limitations of the paper. You should not, however, tell the authors whether you consider the paper publishable in the journal; that decision is up to the editor. After the general comments, you generally should provide a section-by-section list of com­ments on the paper. For ease in identification, it usually is best to specify the items you comment on by page, paragraph, and line.

Your main task as a peer reviewer is to evaluate the content of the paper. Is the research of high quality? If not, what are the problems? Has all the appro­priate content been provided? Should any content be deleted? In answering the last two questions, you may find it useful to review the sections of this book on the respective sections of a scientific paper. Other potentially useful resources include a checklist (Task Force of Academic Medicine and the GEA-RIME Com­mittee 2001) that appeared in a report providing guidance for peer reviewing. Although some items in this checklist apply only to some types of research, the checklist provides a useful framework.

As a peer reviewer, you are not expected to comment in detail on the writing. Your task does not include identifying every punctuation error and misspell­ing; if the paper is accepted, a copyeditor can correct such problems. However, it can be worthwhile to comment in general on the clarity, conciseness, and cor­rectness of the writing; to note passages that are ambiguous; to suggest any reorganization that could improve the paper; and to remark on the design of figures and tables. If the paper contains highly specialized wording that you think a copy editor might have difficulty revising properly, consider providing some guidance. Also consider giving extra help with wording if the author’s native language is not English.

In preparing comments intended for the authors, remember that the authors are human beings. Almost certainly, they care greatly about their work, are sensitive about it, and will be most receptive to feedback if it is given in a con­structive tone. Therefore avoid sarcasm, and phrase your comments tactfully. Set a positive tone by first stating the strengths of the paper; then, after offering suggestions, perhaps end the review with words of encouragement. Although the section-by-section or line-by-line comments should be mainly suggestions, an occasional compliment can be included. Whether or not the journal accepts the paper, the review can help educate authors and so improve the current paper and later ones. Indeed, if an author appears to be a beginning researcher or seems to come from someplace where international norms of scientific publication are not well known, consider taking extra effort to make the review educational, either directly or by suggesting resources that can improve one’s scientific writing.

Should you sign your review, or should it be anonymous? Policies in this regard differ among journals. Advocates of anonymous review, which is com­mon in the sciences, say it allows reviewers to be more honest—especially when, for instance, a young researcher is evaluating a paper by someone much senior. On the other hand, advocates of signed review say it encourages reviewers to be more responsible. Some journals allow reviewers to decide whether to iden­tify themselves. The journal’s instructions for reviewers should indicate its policy. If in doubt, ask whoever invited you to do the review.

3. PROVIDING INFORMAL PEER REVIEW

Because of your knowledge of science and of writing, you may be asked to com­ment on drafts before submission. Such review can be a valuable service, espe-cially to students, junior colleagues, and others who may not be thoroughly versed in English-language scientific communication. The following sugges­tions can aid in providing such informal peer review.

Find out what level of review is being sought. For example, is the draft an early one, and thus is the author seeking feedback mainly on content and orga­nization? Or is the draft nearly final, so that the time has come to comment on fine points of expression? Although you should feel free to note problems on other levels, knowing the type of feedback sought can help you make appropri­ate use of your time.

Consider serving a criticism sandwich: praise, then criticism, then praise. Also show sensitivity to the author’s feelings in other ways. For example, express criticisms as perceptions rather than facts (“I found this section hard to follow” rather than “This section is totally unclear”). And criticize the work, not the person (“This draft seems to contain many punctuation errors,” not “You have a dreadful command of punctuation”). If you are providing feedback electronically on a manuscript, use word-processing features such as Track Changes, or distinguish comments by placing them in triple brackets or using colored type, italics, or boldface. Avoid typing comments in all capital letters, which can give the impression that you are screaming. Similarly, if you write comments on hard copy, consider using green ink, which seems friendlier than red ink but also tends to be easy to notice.

Through providing informal feedback, you are teaching: By following your suggestions, authors can both improve their current drafts and become better writers in the long run. And by assimilating what you say and how you say it, they themselves can learn to be better peer reviewers in both the informal and the formal sense.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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