In the first of our blog series on peer review, Proceedings B senior editor Professor Sarah Brosnan from the Georgia State University shares her thoughts and experiences on what makes a good, constructive review in scientific scholarly publishing.
Writing a review is a major service to your colleagues, something that both the authors and the Editors greatly appreciate! In my time as an author and an Editor, I’ve read innumerable truly excellent reviews that remind me that science is populated with generous, kind individuals whose goal is to support their colleagues and advance science. Indeed, one of the reasons that I love my role as an Editor is working as an intermediary between reviewers and authors to help make papers the best that they can be. However, one of the things that often falls through the cracks is training scientists to write constructive, useful reviews that help both the authors and editors. In my years as an Editor, I’ve noticed a few issues that routinely crop up that keep reviews from being as useful as they could be.
The most important thing to remember when reviewing a paper is that the goal is to help the authors make the paper better—whether or not the paper is ultimately published in the journal to which it was submitted—not to tell the Editor all the ways in which the paper falls short. It is always helpful to highlight aspects of the paper that are well done, whether you are recommending the paper for further consideration or not; everyone likes to know what they did well. A substantive set of constructive, professional remarks will help the authors both improve their paper and, if it is rejected, understand why. Indeed, if a review includes enough suggestions for improvement, the Editor and authors will both understand that it needs to be rejected without you needing to expressly state it.
Second, comment on the big picture, not the minor details; the best reviews focus on the science and the presentation (i.e., the organization and structure of the paper) rather than line editing. Of course, please do highlight unclear sentences or typos, missing or mis-cited references, or other points that impact the clarity or accuracy of the presentation of the science, but it is not the reviewer’s job to change the tone or style of the authors’ writing, even if you don’t like it personally (although of course you should mention if there is a stylistic issue that impedes clarity or understanding).
Third, please make sure that your comments to the authors match your recommendation and private comments to the Editor. A recommendation to reject and negative comments sent privately to the Editor accompanied with a discordantly positive review written for the authors is not fair to the Editor, who now must explain to the author why they are rejecting a paper despite an apparently positive review, nor the authors, whom you have deceived. If you do not like the paper, please tell the authors this, kindly and constructively, and explain what needs to be improved.
Fourth, please keep in mind who the authors are when writing your review. If the author list includes no senior authors or researchers from Western research-intensive Institutions with either English as a first or predominant language or access to professional English editors paid for by their Institution, focus on the quality of the science and be more flexible about issues with presentation, such as language and grammar. These authors may have less experience publishing in major journals and fewer people to ask for advice, so if the science is sound, use the review to offer advice to help the authors prepare the paper for publication rather than recommending rejection on the grounds that the editing or manuscript preparation were not what you expected.
Fifth, remember that the Editor will get multiple sets of reviews (typically 2-3 reviews plus the opinion of the Associate Editor) to use when guiding their decision, and sometimes those reviews will be in conflict. In such cases, the Editor needs to indicate to the authors how to handle the conflicting advice, which may mean stating that one of your points is not essential, or even disagreeing with it or your recommended decision. If you provided a rationale for your concerns, it is easier for the Editor to navigate a middle ground that takes each reviewers’ points into account, but if the Editor does indicate that one of your points is not essential, please recognize that the Editor is balancing multiple different and potentially mutually incompatible perspectives when making a decision and must decide based on the opinions that they have received and their own review of the manuscript.
Finally, please include your postdocs and senior graduate students in the review process. They will learn the process best by experiencing it with you, which will not only prepare them to write their own reviews but teach them what to expect and how best to respond to both good and not-so-good reviews when they submit their own manuscripts. Most journals, including Proceedings B, encourage co-reviewing and even provide the opportunity for the co-reviewer to be identified.
And last but not least, thank you for writing reviews. It takes time to do well, but it is, as I mentioned, invaluable to both the authors and the Editor and we are extremely grateful to each of our reviewers for the time and care they give to their colleagues and to the advancement of the field.
If you are interested in reviewing for Proceedings B or any other Royal Society journal, find out about the benefits of reviewing for our journals on our website.
Image credit: Marcus Taylor (marcustaylorphotography.com)