How to be an effective peer reviewer

How to be an effective peer reviewer

By Laura J. Falkenberg

A key skill scientists can develop is the ability to write effective peer reviews. At the 2018 Ocean Sciences Meeting, journal editors led a session on how to do this. The contributing editors were Maggie Xenopoulos (Deputy Editor-in-Chief, ASLO’s Limnology and Oceanography) and Miguel Goni (Editor-in-Chief, AGU’s Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences). As with the session on manuscript submission (blogs found here and here), I will use this first blog to describe the information presented, and then in the next highlight key points raised in the discussion that followed.

When preparing a review of a manuscript, there are a number of key phases effective reviewers typically undertake, which are detailed here:

  1. In the first phase, you will be asked to promptly make a decision regarding whether or not to accept an invitation to review a manuscript. If you lack time or expertise, or have a conflict of interest or potential bias, then you should decline to review the manuscript. Even if declining the review, you can help the Editors by suggesting other potential reviewers. If there are none of these issues, you can accept the invitation.
  2. Once you have agreed to review a manuscript, the next step is typically a first quick reading of the manuscript from beginning to end. This reading allows you to form an overall impression of the manuscript. The initial reading should also be used to help you develop a summary of the manuscript, and to detail the major strengths and weaknesses.
  3. A second more detailed reading would then be used to go through the manuscript section by section and identify specific details that need to be altered (scientific, organisation, writing). This is typically also the reading which allows reviewers to finalise their recommendation (e.g. accept, minor revision, major revision).
  4. It was emphasised that this was one possible method that could be used; with experience each reviewer will develop a process that works for them. Consequently, the process you settle on using may include a fourth (or more) phase(s).

In general, regardless of the process which is used, it was emphasised that effective reviewers behave in certain ways. Specifically, they:

  • Treat others (authors, reviewers, editors) as they would like to be treated
  • Recognise manuscripts, correspondence, and reviews are confidential and therefore should not be posted or made public without permission
  • Act in mutual good faith

Further reading was suggested, with these resources listed here:

  • Falkenberg, LJ and Soranno, PA. 2018. Reviewing reviews: an evaluation of peer reviews of journal article submissions. Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin. 27: 1-5
  • Gewin, V. 2011. Rookie Review. Nature. 478: 275-277
  • National Academy of Sciences, National Academy. 2009. On being a scientist: a guide to responsible conduct in research. National Academies Press: United States.
  • Nicholas, KA and Gordon, W. 2011. A quick guide to writing a solid peer review. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. 92: 376-381
  • The authorship and reviewing guidelines of the relevant publisher

Following this presentation by Maggie and Miguel, the workshop moved into an open discussion, the key points of which I will highlight in the fourth, and final, post in this series.

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