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Elsevier editors share their top reviewing tips - Part 1

In this 3-part series, seasoned editors highlight the ingredients required for a “great review”

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The wish of editors around the world, in every discipline, is to receive high-quality peer review reports, so we’ve asked our journal editors what advice they would offer reviewers. 

In part 1 of this 3-part series, they outline the steps you should take when you receive a review request.

Understand your position in the process

Good peer review can improve communication and propel knowledge; bad peer review can have a negative effect just as powerful. As a reviewer, understanding your position in the peer review process can help you write better review reports.

When manuscripts come in, editors first determine whether they are suitable to send for peer review, e.g. fit the aims and scope of the journal and contain all the expected elements. In most disciplines, reviewers can be hard to come by, so this desk rejection is an important way to avoid saturating the reviewers.

Professor Christina Trautmann, Editor of Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms, describes the steps she takes: “Once I receive a new manuscript submission, I first read the letter from the authors, read the abstract and scan over the text and figures. I then check the manuscript via iThenticate to see if there are text sections overlapping with existing papers. After considering experts and checking the referees proposed by the authors, I send the manuscript to two referees.”

When the review reports come back, Professor Trautmann reads them carefully, sometimes revising the language before sending them on to the author. The authors then work on the revisions, and the revised version may be sent back to the reviewers, if major changes have been made. “Sometimes this process goes through several cycles until the reviewer recommends acceptance or finally rejection,” says Professor Trautmann.

This process is typical across the board, with some editors opting for fewer or more reviewers for each paper, depending on the journal and discipline.

The purpose of a review

Together, the reviewers and editors act as a filter in the publication process. “Where to set the threshold line of this filter is difficult and requires great seriousness, instinct and expertise,” comments Professor Trautmann. “If the threshold of the filter is too low, a field may suffer from too many ‘garbage’ publications, and if the threshold is too high, small scientific advances that sometimes trigger big knowledge steps may be lost.”

So a key role of the reviewer is to help inform the editor and guide the process. “Reviews should help the editor decide if a paper makes a significant enough contribution and if we should publish it,” says Professor Urban Jermann, Co-Editor of the Journal of Monetary Economics. “If the reviewer’s evaluation is positive, we also see referee reports as a way to guide revisions of a paper.”

And there’s also another purpose, he says – one that’s important for reviewers to remember. “It’s a social contract that reviewers are willing to spend the time to review others’ work,” explains Professor Jermann. “Providing a forum for communicating about research, and in the process improving its quality, is a secondary objective of a journal, even for work that will end up being published elsewhere.”

Are you the right reviewer?

That being said, it may not be wise to review a manuscript on a topic too far from home. When you receive an invitation to review, first check it’s in an area you’re comfortable evaluating – you should be sure you could contribute a high quality review. Editors appreciate it when you reply immediately, either accepting or declining with suggestions for alternative reviewers. This helps them in the time-consuming process of finding the right reviewers.

“It’s important to select reviewers carefully; this is something I spend a lot of time on,” says Professor Jermann. “Reviewers should be knowledgeable in the area. We usually only go for one referee report, and perhaps a second if the decision is unclear; this means that as editors we have to spend more time selecting the right referees. Reviewing is time intensive and requires that people are willing to write the reports.”

If you’re a willing and able reviewer, you could benefit greatly from taking part in the process, as Professor Marijn Janssen, Co-Editor-in-Chief of Government Information Quarterly explains: “Incentives are important – if reviewers do a good job, they can join the editorial board. If they’re really good, they might become an associate editor or an editor. It’s important to let people know that they can progress with the journal if they do good work.”

Reviewing - the basics

  • Understand your position in the process: you can improve scientific knowledge through review
  • Do a good job as a reviewer and you could progress with the journal
  • Respond to the invitation immediately
  • If you decline to review, suggest alternative reviewers
  • If you accept, do your homework: get to know the journal first
  • Invest time in the review: read, sleep, write, sleep, recommend

Prepare to write the report

So you’ve received the invitation to review, you understand your position in the process and you’ve decided to accept, replying immediately. What now?

First, get to know the journal. What are its aims and scope? Who reads it, and what sort of papers are the editors interested in? “When I read a review report, I look for indications that the manuscript contains valuable and new information which is of interest for the readers of my journal,” says Professor Trautmann. Knowing the journal helps you highlight this information in your report.

Read through any reviewing guidelines the journal has, as well as Elsevier’s general guidance for reviewers. If there is a template or list of questions, have a copy handy before you get started. Then grab a coffee and make time for the review.

“Read the paper, not just the day you want to write the report; read it before you plan to write, and think about it,” advises Professor Jermann. “This is a tip I got when I was a reviewer myself – take time to absorb what’s in a paper and develop your own perspective on it. Read it first, write up later and decide your recommendation last.”


Contributor biographies

Professor Urban Jermann is the Safra Professor of International Finance and Capital Markets at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.  His research is on asset prices, corporate finance, and macroeconomic fluctuations.  He teaches classes on international finance for undergraduate and graduate students. Professor Jermann holds a PhD from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva Switzerland. He is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and has been a Senior Economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.  Before becoming an editor of the Journal of Monetary Economics, he was associate editor for several economics journals.

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.

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