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How to tackle your first review

7 June 2023

By Christopher Tancock

How to tackle your first review

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Ten simple strategies for refereeing success

We would appreciate your expertise in reviewing the attached manuscript.

These words, or something similar, have just kicked off your first experience in acting as a referee. How do you respond? Where to start? What do you say? Relax! Let us guide you through the peer review process and make your experience a success – both for you, the editor, and the author(s) involved.

A long history

350 years after the launch of the first peer refereed journal – Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – peer review remains the lynchpin of academic publishing, and places you as referee at the very heart of the process. Putting it simply, peer review provides a vital quality control mechanismopens in new tab/window.

[Philosophical Transactions should be] licensed under the charter by the Council of the Society, being first reviewed by some of the members of the same. [R. Soc. Order in Council 1/3/1665]

Done well, peer review improves the quality and presentation of a paper, ensures that the research is embedded in the existing literature (and that previous work is acknowledged), verifies the originality, significance and relevance of the work, identifies ethical breaches, and ensures the reference list is complete and sufficiently extensive. So how do you approach the process in a fashion that will ensure all of the above aspects are addressed?

Before you begin

Perhaps even before reading the abstract, you should ask yourself the question: “do I have time for this?”. It might be that you have a grant application due in next week. Or a big project is about to kick off. Maybe you’ve just become a parent or have gone through some similar life-changing event. Whatever the situation, if you can’t devote sufficient time to reviewing the paper, make things easier both for yourself and the other parties – say “no” asap and allow the editor to find an alternative reviewer.

If this is a convenient time, start by reading the abstract and consider whether the subject matter is indeed in your sphere of expertise. If not, you should swiftly decline the invite, explaining your reasons. (A final reason to turn down the request would be if you had any sort of conflicting interestopens in new tab/window e.g., being at the same institute as the author or having some sort of financial interest in the project under discussion.)

Assuming that you do possess the happy triumvirate of time, expertise and a lack of conflicting interest, the next step is to carefully read the covering invitation and instructions from the editor, check out the journal’s guide for reviewers and, if satisfied, accept the request.

Preparing your review

The first thing we would recommend when embarking on your review would be to carefully read the manuscript once without any specific objective. Your task here is just to get a general impression of the piece. Once you’ve got your bearings, so to speak, and being conscious of the journal’s instructions*read the paper over again with eye to the results, conclusions and summary. Do there seem to be any significant mismatches or issues? Start making notes…

On your next perusal of the paper, consider the structure and style – does it read/flow well or are there any obstructions to understanding? You’re probably reaching a point now where it’s difficult to see the wood from the trees. Take a break – you’ll approach the next stage much better if you do!

Now is the time to start formulating your thoughts. Make a detailed list of feedback – either as a numbered list or inline on the paper depending on the platform and tools used by the journal in question. Also begin drafting feedback to author and the editor (NB these should be separate). It’s important to be able to justify your comments so make sure you can do so if necessary.

Weighing up all your analysis and dissection of the paper, you need to decide on your overall recommendation to the editor. Would you counsel rejection, revision or approval? In all that you do here, you should put yourself in the author’s shoes. Consider how your feedback will sound and make sure that your comments are measured, justifiable, constructive and above all polite. And whatever you do, take the opportunity to read your report once more before submitting – something you might later regret could be lurking!

After your review

You might think that once you’ve pressed “send” on your referee report, that’s your job done. Almost, but not quite. One thing to bear in mind is that you must not share any aspect of the work you’ve been privileged to see – the content is strictly confidential unless you are told differently by the editor.

What’s more, as practically every manuscript not desk rejected is revised, you should be prepared to re-review the piece. Though this equates to another effort on your part, you’re best-placed to look at a revised manuscript and give your judgment on whether it’s now ready for publication. With all of this, consider that you are probably repaying a favour – having had the benefit of someone else’s time and expertise on your own work in the past.

Once the editor has made a final decision on the paper, you can indeed give yourself a pat on the back and reflect on a job well done. You shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask for feedback from the editor, however – if this your first (or an early) experience of reviewing, you could pick up some tips to up your game next time. Speaking of next time, it might be worth looking at some resources to further hone your refereeing edge (a list of “further reading” is included below). Finally, ensure that you get due credit for your work – e.g. via Elsevier’s Reviewer Hubopens in new tab/window or by ensuring your ORCID profile and CV are up to date.

And that’s it! We hope this has been a helpful guide in tackling your first review. In any case, good luck, and thanks for being a key part of a vital 350-year-old system that’s helped improve academic output for countless articles, yours included.

*Many of our journals now employ “structured peer review” whereby you will receive a series of questions to make it easier for you to convey recommendations for improvement in a structured manner.