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Peer-Review Techniques for Novices

Young scientists are often taken by surprise when peer review first drops into their lap. Although this time-honored process by which scientists advise editors on the importance of scientific manuscripts submitted for publication is a central component of academic research, few graduate students or postdoctoral fellows receive any formal exposure to peer review. So what do you do when an editor comes calling with a paper and asks you to decide if it should be published? Refereed publications are the coin of the science realm, how do you discharge the grave responsibility of weighing a colleague's fate?

The first rule is to be courteous. Editors frown upon scathing, destructive reports that serve no constructive purpose. "Write the review as if you were writing it to yourself," says Iain Taylor, professor of botany at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver and assistant editor-in-chief of NRC Research Press. A good peer reviewer makes specific, useful comments on the manuscript's presentation and pitfalls. As Taylor tells students in an annual series of workshops at UBC on writing, editing, and peer-reviewing scientific papers, a good peer reviewer is a "consultant--not a judge, jury, and executioner!"

Learning how to be an effective peer-review consultant takes time, however, and Taylor tells Next Wave that it is never too early for students and postdocs to get their "feet wet" with the review process. "It isn't only the ability to recognize when a paper is well written, but the entire revision process that can be a valuable experience for young researchers," says Taylor. But how do you get that experience?

Many a research trainee gets their first taste of peer review from a paper originally sent to their advisor. Although it is a common practice, editors prefer to be told when an advisor plans to pass the review work on to a student. Editors distribute manuscripts in the strictest confidence, says Bruce Dancik, editor-in-chief of the NRC Research Press and professor of renewable resources at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. If the person asked to do the review wants some input from other referees or wishes another person to act as referee, says Dancik, they should request permission from the editor.

That doesn't mean that editors oppose student referees. Quite the opposite. "Most editors appreciate the quality of work they receive in such cases and also want to see more referees trained!" Dancik replies. And Taylor agrees. "In my experience, the postdoc is often the most valuable peer reviewer because he/she is hot from the grilling of a Ph.D. programme, is still excited about trying to keep up in the field, and eager to please." It is sometimes a good idea, Taylor and Dancik advise, to indicate your level of experience in a particular topic at the beginning of the report.

Taylor's Tips for Good Peer Review

  • What is your perception of the science in the paper? "This paper describes ... and concludes (or tries to conclude) ... ."

  • Is the work original?

  • Is the science of high quality?

  • Is there enough new information in the paper to justify publication?

  • Do you have any editorial/presentation suggestions?

  • Indicate the strengths of the paper.

  • Indicate the weaknesses.

  • Do not tell the author how you would have done the experiment, but do explain if you believe that the experiment did not achieve the stated goals.

  • Is the hypothesis clear?

  • Are the methods adequately described?

  • Can you follow the results? Do the tables and illustrations make sense?

  • Are the statistics adequate/appropriate?

  • Is the work adequately discussed?

  • Are all the references pertinent?

If and when you are asked to review a paper, don't accept until you are sure that you can meet the editor's deadline. Many academic journals work on a tight schedule and generally request a turn-around time of 2 weeks from peer reviewers. If you can't meet the deadline, politely decline their invitation to review. You will save both parties a lot of anguish. And if you think that there may be a conflict of interest, work on the assumption that there IS one and contact the editor and refuse to do the review.

So now you have the paper in your hands. What do you do? There are no hard and fast lessons on peer-reviewing articles for academic journals, says Taylor. His first piece of advice for novices is to "look at the journal in question, find a paper that is reasonably close to your own work and review it for practice." This is often a good way of assessing the journal's standards. Adhering to the journal's guidelines for reviewers is also very important, Taylor says. Some journals provide a list of guidelines on their Web site or at the back of the journal; often the journal editor will provide a letter with clear instructions. It is best to read them carefully and construct your report in the desired manner.

The contents of your final report will vary tremendously depending on the quality and importance of the work. But every referee's report should contain the answers to four questions:

  • Originality: Is the work original and does it make a further contribution to what is already in the published literature?

  • Quality: Is the research question or hypothesis clearly defined and appropriately answered? Is the overall design of the study adequate? Are the claims justified?

  • Quantity: Is there enough of it? Do the authors need to conduct further experiments in order to substantiate their claims?

  • Readability: Is there a way to improve it? Is there too much superfluous information presented which obscures the central point?

  • Dancik's final piece of advice to research trainees is "Be a referee as often as you can--it will help your own science. Be as honest and constructive as you can--remember what it's like to receive negative comments, and the context in which they are made. Appreciate the help you get when your manuscripts are carefully and helpfully reviewed, and try to do the same for other scientists!"

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