How to Do a Professional Scientific Paper Peer Review

I review a lot of research paper submissions.  I enjoy it because I feel like I have some expertise to contribute and I feel I can help make submissions better.  The peer-review system is an integral pillar of the research estate.  It is one check of many to prevent bad research from being published.  Realistically, with enough determination, you can probably publish almost any research paper.  But the peer review system is, right now, the way we do things in academia.  

I want to give you a short guide because veterinary academicians do peer review as an integral part of their responsibilities.  If you don’t care how the sausage gets made, move along.

What do you get out of reviewing submissions?  First, you get a peek into the newest, latest research.  Second, you get to practice your critical thinking and study design skills.  Third, you are contributing to making the world a better place, which should make you feel good.  

Finally, it goes onto your CV and is a small (but important) piece of your progression.  I’m not saying if you have zero reviews on your CV that you won’t be promoted to Associate Professor.  But if you don’t have any reviews on your CV, that will definitely come up during the promotion committee’s discussion.  Don’t give them any reason to question your CV.  Contribute to the research estate by doing peer review.  How do you do a good one?

  1. Be professional and constructive.  Your job is to evaluate if the submission is suitable for publication in that journal AND to try and improve the submission.  Your job is NOT to be an editor!  Avoid the temptation to correct spelling, grammar, typos, etc.  If you have a positive, productive, professional attitude, you will do a better job and the editors will appreciate your contribution more.
  2. Read the paper once.  Get some general impressions and get a sense for the project.
  3. Read again and take notes.  After your first read-through, read it again and make notes in a separate document as you go.  Reference line numbers.  For example, Lines 118-120: how was randomization conducted?
  4. Make your questions and comments simple, succinct, and as specific as possible.  It’s fine to occasionally write, “I did not understand the meaning of this sentence.”  But as much as possible, be specific.  For example, “I think you mean patients got treatment A OR treatment B, but you state patients got treatment A AND treatment B.”
  5. Use proper spelling and grammar.  I understand many reviewers do not have English as a primary language.  But, if your first language IS English, it should be correct.
  6. If you are unsure about something, you can ask the authors in your review, the Editor via email, or your colleagues who may have more expertise than you.  When discussing the submission with colleagues, it must be in a way that doesn’t identify the paper, the authors, or any other identifying information.
  7. I personally only tend to reject papers which have what I believe are fatal methodological flaws.  You need to decide on what criteria you will reject a paper.  Ask mentors and peers if you need guidance.  There is always a section in reviews where you can address the editor.  If you feel a paper is ‘on the fence’, you can say so in the direct comments to the editor.

There are many technical details, mostly about methodology, which could be discussed.  Those are beyond the scope of this post, though.  I want to get you to think about how to approach a review.  As always, be a professional, be humble, be willing to acknowledge if you need help, and be positive.

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