How do you review a paper for a scientific journal?

Gepubliceerd op 23 juni 2023 om 12:00

The moment has arrived! An editor of a scientific journal has sent you a request to review a manuscript. You know a lot about the topic, you have the time and you are up for it. You click on the ‘Accept to review’ button in the invitation e-mail. Great! But how exactly do you do that? Reviewing a paper?

How do you approach a review?

When you decide to review a paper, start by reading the paper as objectively as possible. Write down anything you notice or that raises a question with you. Keep your comments in line with the structure of the paper: introduction, method, results, discussion and, if relevant, some general comments. Indicate to which part of the manuscript each comment refers to. You can do this by copying the relevant sentence(s) from the manuscript and putting them in your comments, or by referencing the exact page and line number in the manuscript. Make it clear what you wish to achieve with your comment. Do the authors need to clarify, adjust, improve or actually remove something? Sometimes you can offer suggestions for potential improvements, that are not a necessity. If that is the case, indicate this clearly. For example: you think that adding a table will make their findings more clear, but it is not wrong that this table is not (yet) included.



What do you look for during a review?

You basically review a paper, the way you would also look at your own paper. The introduction should make it clear why the research question is relevant and what the hypotheses of the authors are. The method should make it clear how the questions were researched. The results should display the outcomes of the analyses that were described in the method section. Finally, the authors should answer their research question in the discussion and draw logical conclusions. Ask yourself whether you think the paper reads as a logical whole. Can you fully understand it as a reader, or is there essential information missing? Do you believe it is correct what the authors have done? Do the analyses fit the research question? Are the results displayed correctly and are the conclusions in line with the results? Would other researchers be able to replicate this study based on the described method? Has attention been paid to (clinical) implications? These are all matters you could reflect on in your review.


No derision, but a friendly revision

Make sure that you communicate about the content of the paper in a decent way. The authors have worked hard on their paper, just like you put a lot of work into your own research. Or so we assume, for the sake of convenience… Even if your judgement is that a paper is not (yet) good enough for publication and you have quite a bit of comments, you can still communicate these in a respectful and constructive manner to the authors. That is how you would prefer to receive feedback on your own papers as well. A good check before you send in your review is to see if you would be okay with receiving the feedback you have written for the authors.


Do well, receive welll

You probably have an example somewhere in your mailbox of feedback that has been helpful to you in the past. You appreciated this style of feedback and you could draw from that experience in your own review. You would not want to become someone else’s infamous Reviewer 2 of course…



Comments to the editor

The editor who asked you to review this manuscript will appreciate a short summary of the paper at the beginning of your review. Briefly mention what the paper is about, what the findings are, whether the study was conducted appropriately and your indication whether the paper has any relevance. Journals usually have a format for this. Once you hit the ‘accept to review’ button you will be directed to a ‘manuscript central’, just like when you would submit a paper, and this will guide you through the review process. Aside from the official review you can often sent comments directly to the editor, which the authors will not be able to see. Say a paper is exceptionally bad, you could subtly inform the editor in this way, while your review itself contains constructive feedback to the authors to improve their manuscript. Other matters you wish the editor to know, but not the authors, could also be included here.


Anecdotal evidence

Jojanneke once reviewed a manuscript about a topic within her expertise. It was written by a single author. She had already started the review when she noticed the introduction was quite long. When she looked further, the article turned out to be almost 8000 words. For reference: many journals maintain a 4000 words limit for articles, certainly for quantitative studies. The result section of this particular paper consisted of just one table, without any text, explanatory descriptions or other results. At that point Jojanneke stopped reviewing and informed the editor of her observations. In a personal comment to the editor she wrote that the manuscript was of very poor quality and was not in line with the author guidelines of the journal (in terms of length and display of results). The review process was discontinued and the editor agreed that there had been a procedural mistake. In retrospect, it should have been an immediate desk rejection, because the article -apart from its poor quality- did not meet the journal's established guidelines in the first place.


Do you have any further tips for reviewing a manuscript? Let us know in the comments or send us a personal message through the contact page!


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