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How to review a paper

By Richard de Grijs | Sept. 21, 2017  | Research skills Peer review

Reviewing academic articles keeps you up to date in your field and allows you to engage constructively with the cutting edge of research. In this post, Richard de Grijs, Professor of Astrophysics at The Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Peking University, shares invaluable advice on reviewing academic papers.

Congratulations! You have just received your first request to peer review an article that has been submitted for possible publication in an academic journal. Assuming that we are talking about a genuine, respected journal, this means that you have made enough of an impression on one of its editors to be considered knowledgeable in your field. Perhaps the editor is familiar with your previous publications or has heard you speak at a recent conference – or maybe you have been recommended by a colleague who was unable to provide a review herself.

But first things first. Have you heard of the journal soliciting your services? If not, it would be prudent to make sure that it is indeed a genuine journal. Editors of respected academic journals usually do not ask you to submit your CV before sending you a paper to review. If in doubt, ask your mentor or research supervisor, and follow the due diligence recommended by the Think Check Submit initiative.

Be reliable, honest and thorough

The editor’s invitation will include a deadline for your review. If you decide to accept the invitation, make sure that you meet the deadline. Late reports add to the workload of the editorial team and lengthy delays are unfair to the article’s authors. If you feel that you cannot return a review within the allocated time, for any reason, make sure that you tell the editor as soon as possible. There is no need for lengthy explanations – just keep it simple and professional. The editor will be grateful for your rapid response. And he would be even more grateful if you could recommend suitable alternative reviewers. After all, you are a subject expert in your field, of which the editor may only have broad-brush knowledge, so you are perfectly placed to make such recommendations!

As a subject expert, you are also the right person to notice potential shortcomings in the paper. Nevertheless, it could happen that you are not too familiar with some aspects of the research being presented. Don’t be embarrassed to tell the editor; doing so will allow her to seek input from a colleague whose expertise covers those aspects more closely. Make sure you read the article carefully and identify any issues that are unclear, incorrect or at odds with common practice in the field. You don’t need to point out every single typo or all grammatically incorrect sentence constructions – most journals employ copy-editors for that job, although you are welcome to highlight some examples that may affect the reader’s proper understanding of the text.

Be constructive, precise and fair

Be professional about how to convey your concerns to the editor and the authors. The aim of peer review is to help authors improve their articles in order to meet minimum publication standards, not to attack them personally. While identifying shortcomings, suggest possible improvements that would eventually allow you to recommend acceptance. In other words, write a constructive report, be as precise as possible and, just like in a journal article, make sure that your recommendation to the editor is supported by proper arguments.

Reread the paper, and then reread your review. Is it complete? Did you correctly understand the authors’ intentions – and are your objections relevant and your recommendations for improvements realistic? Do the authors’ conclusions follow naturally from the results presented in the paper? Are they sufficiently novel to warrant publication? Are you comfortable that the article’s subject area fits the journal’s scope? Is your review well-structured, so that the editor and the authors can easily follow your logic, allowing the authors to make amendments accordingly? Most importantly, be critical but fair; avoid personal or offensive language: reread your report as if you were the recipient yourself and consider whether you would feel taken seriously in your professional role.

Finally, if the paper you were asked to review turns out to be really good, or if it contains some excellent research, don’t be afraid to say so. Ideally, peer review is a combination of professional criticism and encouragement. Give credit where credit is due, and be prepared to review a revised version of the article at a later date.

Richard de Grijs is a professional astrophysicist with more than 20 years of experience in publishing articles in international peer-reviewed journals. He is a long-time scientific editor of some of the main research journals in his field and the Deputy Editor of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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