How to review a research article

Peer review is central to the scientific process, and I have written about what to expect when you are submitting a journal article, and how the peer review process works, but what happens when you are on the other end of the pipeline? How do you review an article?

Firstly you might ask how you do you even get selected to review an article in the first place? Once you have published an article you will likely start getting approached to review, either due to suggestions from the submitting authors themselves, or perhaps as a referral from your supervisor. You may also turn up as a possible reviewer from your researcher profiles on different journal websites, which you filled out when you were submitting an article, so it is important to fill these out correctly so that you are approached by editors.

The second question you might ask is why should I accept a review request? It takes time and I don’t get paid to do it. Other than the feel good experience of contributing to science, when you are applying for grants most of them will ask for a list of journals you have reviewed for, to show that you are actively engaged in the research community.

If you are selected as a possible reviewer you will be sent an email asking you to either to accept or decline a review. Generally you can have a look at the abstract to decide whether or not you have the expertise to review the paper. The article does not necessarily have to be exactly what you do, but you should have enough knowledge in that area to point out any glaring omissions/errors in the paper. Once you accept you will be given a deadline as to when you should hand your review in by, usually in the range of 3-4 weeks.

So how do you go about reviewing the article? What I will generally do first is download and print the submitted article and read through it, making comments and edits with a pen as I go through. It’s important to read the article properly, not just a light skimming. You need to be thinking about possible alternative explanations for the paper as well as what literature might be left out of the introduction, make notes of anything that is confusing or that you don’t understand in the methods or results.  Then I will usually leave it for a day or so letting it simmer in the back of my mind. I will then come back to the article and re-read it and add any more thoughts I may have.

Then you will need to write up your review. One thing you should keep in mind when you do this is: Review unto others as you would have them review unto you. You definitely should point out problems with a manuscript, that is the whole point of peer review, however think about how you write this, there is no need to be condescending, passive aggressive or outright rude. The person who is going to read this has put a lot of time and effort into this work and there is no need to make what can be a difficult process worse with harsh words. In short, try not to be a jerk, aka Reviewer 2!

There are usually two reviews that you write, one to the editor, which the author will not see, and one to the author/s. The overlap between these two will be fairly high except in the review to the editor you will also include your recommendation to publish, minor revisions, major revisions or reject and you should explain here why you have made that specific recommendation.

For the review that the authors reads it will usually follow the following general outline. You will start with a paragraph summarising what the article is about and how it contributes to the field of research. If you think it deserves to be published you should expand a little here on how this study answers an important question in your field, and feel free to use some glowing words of praise. Next you will outline your major concerns or reservations you have about the article, if you have any. In the next paragraph you will go into more detail about your major concerns. Major concerns are usually potential confounds to the study, other explanations for the data, or statistical/methodological issues. You should outline potential new experiments or analyses that would solve these issues if you can, and try to be constructive with your criticism. Following this you will then outline minor issues, these are generally spelling/grammar issues and suggested additional references or minor expansions in the introduction/discussion.

Once you have written this review you will submit it on the journals online portal and you will be asked if you are happy to review the paper again, if necessary. Depending on the outcome for this manuscript you might go through this process a few more times either until the paper is rejected or accepted. And that is all there is to being a reviewer! So go forth and always remember to be kind to one another when reviewing!  

Rebecca Keogh

Rebecca has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and is into all things brain! Her current research investigates visual memory and imagery and what drives the large individual differences that exist in these areas. When she's not at the lab you can find her chasing ducks, playing basketball and drinking wine, not usually all at once.

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