For many academics, especially Early Career Researchers, writing a review can seem like quite a daunting task. Direct training is often hard to come by and not all senior academics have the time to act as mentors. As this week is Peer Review Week, we wanted to provide some advice on what makes a good review and what makes a bad review. This advice has been kindly provided by the Methods in Ecology and Evolution Associate Editors – all of whom are authors and reviewers as well.
Before we dive into the tips from our Editors though, we want to highlight one of the best resources for anyone looking for peer review guidance – the BES Guide to Peer Review in Ecology and Evolution. This booklet is intended as a guide for Early Career Researchers, who have little or no experience of reviewing journal articles but are interested in learning more about what is involved. It provides a succinct overview of the many aspects of reviewing, from hands-on practical advice about the actual review process to explaining less tangible aspects, such as reviewer ethics. You can get the PDF version of the guide (and the other BES guides) for free on the BES website.
Without further ado, here are our tips for writing reviews of manuscripts:
A Good Review Should Be…
- Focused: All manuscripts are different and you can’t review them all in the same way. However, it’s good to have a basic set of questions to try to answer in your review. Some examples that can help to focus your reviews include:
- Are the findings scientifically robust, and if not what needs to be changed?
- Given current research in the area, are these results novel?
- What can the authors do to communicate their results better?
Keeping these sorts of questions in mind will help you to avoid tangents and focus on the important elements of the manuscript that you’re reviewing. For methodological journals, change the word ‘results’ to ‘methods’ for each of the above questions.
- Reasonable: When reviewing a paper, it can be tempting to criticise it for not being the paper that you would have written. Any comments or criticisms that you make should aim to help the authors improve their work, not morph it into something else. Reasonable reviews only make realistic requests of the authors that are relevant to the paper and its stated aims. They don’t ask for tangential additions or unnecessary ‘nice-to-have’ changes.
Constructive: To a certain extent, good reviews are critical. However, they should also be constructive. Ideally, problems with the paper should be clearly stated and then followed by suggestions of how could and why they should be addressed. Including explanations of why the problems you have highlighted are important makes it easier for the Editor to come to a decision and suggesting how they can be corrected helps the Author to improve their paper.
- Structured: Giving your review a clear structure makes things easier for Authors and Editors. A brief summary of the paper is a good way to start – not because the Editor needs a reminder of the paper, but because it shows what you took to be the key points. Dividing your suggestions into major and minor points is also very helpful. Ideally, each major point should have one concise paragraph dedicated to it. Tim Poisot recommends that major changes requested in reviews should “read like a to-do list” following this pattern: flaw -> possible solution -> evaluation of how the importance of the flaw. This should help to keep your comments focused, concise and constructive.
- Precise: Where possible, use line and page numbers to indicate where mistakes have been made or where the paper could be improved. It can also be helpful to quote the paper to make sure that everyone is on the same page (pun intended).
Polite and Professional: Always try to express your views as fairly and politely as possible. Negative reviews can be difficult for authors to take, but when the comments are fair, professional and constructive, it’s much easier. That is not to say that reviews should avoid criticism – it’s often necessary to provide a negative review or to recommend rejection of a paper. However, mean comments or rants about the manuscript or the authors should be avoided at all costs. If you’re unsure whether your review is too harsh, there are a couple of easy things that you can do. For example, ask a colleague to read over the review without reading the paper. This will allow them to comment on the language of your review while remaining as neutral as possible. Another option is to leave the review a day or so and then re-read it before submitting. You may find that you are able to soften your language if necessary.
What Should You Avoid When Writing a Review?
The ‘One-Liner’: One-line reviews are the most frustrating things that an Editor or an Author can receive. They don’t indicate how or if the paper can be improved and they make it seem as though the reviewer has not put any thought or effort into their comments. It also forces the Editor to rely more on the other reviewer’s comments. Even if you think that a paper is great as it is, you should give some explanation for your assessment. Editors really need to know exactly why the paper is amazing or your review won’t help much in decision making process, especially if there are more descriptive negative reviews of the paper.
- Stating Your Decision: Most journals, including Methods and the other BES journals, give reviewers the option to select a decision from a list in the reviewer score sheet. However, a lot of reviewers will write their decision in the comments to the author as well. This can make things really awkward for the Editor, especially if the other reviewer of the paper has been much more positive or negative. It can also be confusing for the authors when reading the reviews in the decision letter. It’s fine to recommend a decision, but please keep it to the score sheet or the comments to the Editor.
- Contradictory Comments: It can often be difficult to be critical of a paper in a review. Some reviewers try to avoid this by being very positive in their comments to the authors (e.g. ‘this paper was well-written and is timely’) and placing all of their negative comments in the confidential section of the review that will only be seen by the Editor (e.g. for the same paper ‘the writing was awful and the content really wasn’t very novel’). When this happens, the Editors often need to incorporate the negative comments into their own notes to the author. To the Author, this can seem as though the Editor has ignored the Reviewer’s comments and tends to lead to unnecessary, unwarranted and time-consuming appeals. If there are issues in a paper that need to be addressed, they should be included in the comments to the authors.
- Vague or Superficial Comments: Stating that a discussion section ‘needs work’, that the authors have ‘missed some references’ or that the paper as a whole ‘misses the point’ is not helpful to the Editors or the Authors. It gives no explanation of why there are problems with the paper or how they can be addressed. Unless you can back up these sorts of statements with advice or explanations, it’s best to leave them out entirely.
- Mean Reviews: This is essentially a repetition of point 6 in what makes a good review, but it’s worth repeating. It’s fine to want to rant about a manuscript, but that rant does not belong in the comments to the authors. Your comments to the authors should be professional and constructive – even if they are negative or if you’re recommending that the Editor rejects the paper. If you can’t hold back your rant – or if you have a particularly good snarky comment that you can’t keep to yourself – put it in the confidential comments to the Editor.
A Few Bonus Tips
- Don’t be Afraid to Say ‘No’: You should never feel obliged to review a paper just because you’ve been sent an invitation. If a paper is outside of your area of expertise or if you simply don’t have the time to read, assess and comment on it, it’s fine to decline an invitations. Journals understand that it is not always possible to provide a review and won’t hold it against you if you tell them that you’re not available.
- Respond to Invitations: However, not responding to a review invitation delays the peer review process unnecessarily. Declining a review invitation quickly allows the Editor to invite an alternative review and keep the peer review process moving.
Suggest Alternative Reviewers: If you can’t review a paper, it’s always helpful to Editors to Editors to suggest an alternative reviewer. This speeds up the review process and is always greatly appreciated. Editors are particularly grateful when people recommend Early Career Researchers as they are less likely to be known to the Editor and more likely to accept the review invitation.
- Work as a Team: Collaborative reviews can be an excellent way to gain experience in reviewing and learn more about the process. The Journal of Ecology had a great blog post about collaborative reviews earlier this week and we’ll be providing a bit more information about them on the Methods blog tomorrow.
- Communicate with the Editorial Office: If you think that a manuscript looks interesting, but can’t complete a review by the deadline or don’t think that you have the expertise to comment on every aspect of it, get in touch with the Editorial office. Journals are usually willing to grant deadline extensions (within reason) and sometimes Editors will look for Reviewers who can provide complimentary reviews on different sections of a paper. There’s no harm in asking for an extension or clarifying what elements of a paper you can comment on.
Hopefully the advice in this blog post is helpful for you, but it’s by no means exhaustive. There are a lot of great resources available online to help you develop and improve your review writing skills. As mentioned above, the BES Guide to Peer Review in Ecology and Evolution is a great place to start. The following online resources can be really helpful as well:
- Getting Peer Review Right: An hour-long webinar from Wiley covering why peer review matters, how to write a review and the ethics of peer reviewing. You need to sign-up to BrightTalk to access this, but once you have an account, it’s free.
- Reviewer Guidelines and Best Practice: Advice on reviewing from Taylor and Francis – from responding to an invitation to writing the review.
- Peer Review: The Nuts and Bolts: A guide to peer review from Sense about Science, specifically aimed at Early Career Researchers.
- Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers: From the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).
- Peer Review Week Resources: A collection of online resources covering all aspects of peer review.
Thanks to all of our Associate Editors who sent their advice on these topics, especially Natalie Cooper, Diana Fisher, Nick Golding, Jana McPherson, Tim Poisot, Satu Ramula, John Reynolds and Doug Yu.