Elsevier editors share their top reviewing tips – Part 3
In the final article in this series, we learn about the anatomy of a good review report
By Lucy Goodchild Posted on 13 July 2015
Although the structure of your peer review report may depend on the journal for which you’re reviewing, to a large extent it will follow a standard structure, just like research articles do.
“There is a good standard way to set up a review, and if people stick to that it tends to result in a good review,” says Professor Cynthia Baldwin, Co-Editor-in-Chief of Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology. “It starts with a small paragraph – a few sentences summarizing the paper – then moves on to address major points like experimental design and the interpretation of data, and finally minor points (for example, highlighting an incorrect figure number).”
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With this in mind, a review report can be structured into three main sections:
- Summary and overall evaluation
- Specific comments and improvement points
Summary and overall evaluation
Your review report should start with a short summary of the research – a few sentences, in your words, describing the main results. This will help you determine whether the paper falls within the scope of the journal – one of the first things to consider when you’re reviewing, explains Professor Dr. Rob Verpoorte, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. “We get 4,000 submissions a year, so if it’s possible to reduce these quickly by judging against criteria everyone can see, such as scope, that improves the process.”
After summarizing the research, you should include your general impressions of the paper, as Professor Baldwin explains: “The reviewer should talk about why it’s new or important, whether it’s a move forward in the literature, and whether it’s an incremental step or a new paradigm. I need to be confident in, and reliant on, what a reviewer is saying and, first and foremost, this shows that the reviewer understands the point of the paper.”
You should comment on the general quality of the manuscript. Is the research sound? Is the paper well put together? If you have criticisms at this stage, be honest about them, and share your feedback with the authors too. According to Professor Christina Trautmann, Editor of Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms, this is one of the main things reviewers could improve on: “Reviewers often provide severe criticism directly to the editor, simultaneously being soft in the comments to the authors. It’s much more helpful to the authors if they get honest feedback from reviewers – that way, they can improve.”
Specific comments and improvement points
The second section of the report should highlight issues the author needs to address in the paper to make it publishable. This section can be divided into two parts, says Professor Baldwin: “A review should include a combination of major and minor points. Some people focus on the minutiae – typos and grammar – but I want to know if the paper is worth publishing.”
Starting with major comments, work through the manuscript, commenting on each section of the paper. As you make comments, be sure to provide possible improvements. “Distinguish between general, factual and preference errors,” advises Professor Marijn Janssen, Co-Editor-in-Chief of Government Information Quarterly. “If it’s your subjective opinion, then say that. If it’s a factual mistake, be clear about it.”
Once you have provided all of your major comments and suggestions, move on to more specific, minor points, like spelling and grammar. “We really don’t like sloppy papers – ones that contain a lot of mistakes,” says Professor Janssen. If there are substantial errors in the paper, mention this as a point about quality in your summary. For small mistakes, specify them as minor corrections in this section.
Finally, take a look at the list of references. Reviewing references can be a cause for concern for editors – while a good review points to missing literature, a bad one provides a list of the reviewer’s own references. “It’s not good practice for a reviewer to take advantage of their role and push the authors to cite their own publications,” comments Professor Trautmann.
She adds: “Provide clear and structured statements that help us navigate the manuscript.” Wherever possible, refer to line numbers, paragraphs and figure or table numbers when you make comments. It’s also useful to number your comments, helping the editor keep track and the author respond in a structured way.
“One of the biggest mistakes reviewers make is being too vague in their recommendation,” says Professor Trautmann. “We value your opinion, so be clear and direct about what you recommend.”
Editors’ tips in a nutshell
Summary and overall evaluation
- Summarize the research in your own words
- Give your general impressions of the paper
- Be honest with the author
Specific comments and improvement points
- Provide major comments first, then minor comments
- Include suggestions for improvement
- Don’t push your own publications into the references
- Be specific and precise – refer to line numbers
- Make a clear recommendation
For more guidelines on navigating the peer-review process, visit the Elsevier Publishing Campus
Cynthia Baldwin is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has been an investigator in that area of immunology for over 30 years, receiving her PhD from Cornell University. Her research has focused on cellular responses to bacterial and protozoan pathogens of humans and livestock. Cynthia is a long-serving Editor-in-Chief of Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology, a journal for comparative immunology. She also serves as a Jefferson Science Fellow at the US Department of State in Washington, DC. She is currently the Principal Investigator on federally-funded grants including one from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the National Institutes of Health that has the goal of using large animal models of disease for the benefit of humans and livestock.
Professor Marijn Janssen is full Professor in ICT & Governance and head of the Information and Communication Technology section of the Technology, Policy and Management Faculty of Delft University of Technology. His research interests are in the field of orchestration, (shared) services, open data and infrastructures within constellations of public and private organizations. He serves on several editorial boards, is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Government Information Quarterly and is involved in the organization of a number of conferences. He has published over 300 refereed publications.
Professor Christina Trautmann is head of the Materials Research Department at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt (Germany) and holds a professorship at the Department of Materials Sciences of the University of Darmstadt (Germany). She graduated from the Technical University Munich and received her PhD degree from the Johann-Goethe Universität in Frankfurt. She is an internationally recognized expert in the field of ion-beam induced material modifications and ion-beam nanotechnology and has more than 260 publications in refereed scientific journals. Since 2004, she is Editor of the Journal Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms.
Professor Dr. Rob Verpoorte is Professor Emeritus at Leiden University. He holds a Pharmacists degree and a PhD from Leiden University, and was lecturer there from 1976-1987. Since then he has been Professor and Head of the Department of Pharmacognosy. He was a guest professor in London (UK), Uppsala (Sweden), Amiens (France) and Reims (France). From 1992-1998 he was Vice-Chairman and Chairman of the committee of the Phytochemical Society of Europe (PSE). He has authored 725+ scientific papers, four books and six patent applications, and is Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Ethnopharmacology. He supervised 65 PhD-theses, and 150+ MSc theses. He received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Amiens (Université de Picardie - Jules Verne), France (2004) and Uppsala University, Sweden (2012). In 2007 he received the PSE Medal.