28 September 2015
3 min read
We asked our editorial boards what they think makes a good referee report. And then we asked them about bad ones… Here’s what they said. Comments are anonymous.
What makes a good report and why?
- Be quick! Slow reviews are the bane of all academics. I don’t mind rejection if it is quick and fair
- Be fast: I want to stake my claim and let others know about what I’ve done as soon as possible
- Having a short time in peer review is increasingly important in a crowded field of journals
- Helpful comments, well-structured with comprehensible reasoning which also gives advice on how to improve
- A good referee report points out the strengths and weaknesses of a paper in sufficient detail that the authors can see how to address them
- No work is perfect, and it’s great when a reviewer points out blind spots and ways to remedy the situation
- The focus of a good review is on scientific – not stylistic – issues and on constructive criticism
- Precision and specificity
- Unless the paper is fundamentally flawed or basically inappropriate for the journal then it’s good to constructively suggest how it might be made stronger
- A good report demonstrates that the referee has read though the paper and reflected on it by providing comments on the technical core of the paper rather than just the scope and results
- A good report is not necessarily lengthy, but it is clear that the referee has thought hard about the paper
- One that has obviously carefully read the paper and thought long and hard about the science, and how to make it better – ideally, within the constraints of the current study
What makes a bad report and why?
- Anything subjective is bad. Reviews should be as objective as possible
- Emotive offhand comments without supporting references are unhelpful
- Personal judgements without scientific explanation
- A bad report requests the authors to add references that are gratuitous citations of the referees own work
- Vindictive or biased reviewers
- One that is very short, talks in generalities, and doesn’t address specifics
- Bad reports are very short, indicating that the referee just could not be bothered to think hard about the paper
- One that is very brief and superficial. That’s worse than no review at all; a waste of everyone’s time
- Something very short and dismissive with no reasoning
- Negative comments without constructive criticism are not helpful as they provide the author with no capacity to address the relevant issue
- A bad report makes assertions without giving a rationale
- One that is both critical and vague. If you want to criticise a study, or a part of it, please be precise
- Bad reports simply state that the paper is suitable (or not) but do not give context or explain strengths and weaknesses
- When comments given in the report do not match the recommendation
- Reviewers who don’t provide evidence or specifics to back up their critique: these can be neither assessed by the editor nor addressed by the author
Top Tips: don’t get emotional, be quick and write more than a single sentence. And most of all, be helpful.
Thank you to the editorial boards of Philosophical Transactions A and B, Proceedings B, Biology Letters, Proceedings A, Royal Society Open Science and Journal of the Royal Society Interface for their supportive, interesting and varied comments on this subject. Learn more about our journals here.