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Handling Peer Review

Best Practices for Providing a Constructive Peer Review


Dr. Rong Han, Managing Editor

June 2023

In a previous post, we gave tips on how to excel at peer review. In this article, let’s talk about perhaps the hardest part of being a peer reviewer for journals—providing constructive comments.

Why do we need constructive peer reviews?

The goal of peer review is to let trustworthy and well-presented research get published, thus promoting knowledge dissemination. An effective peer review helps authors improve their manuscript and often, the underlying study as well. This can only be realized by a constructive peer review that not only points out the problems within a manuscript, but also suggests solutions.

Steps of reviewing a research article

Read through the manuscript and identify problems. As research articles usually have the typical introduction-methods-results-discussion sections, we largely know what to expect in each section. For example, we would expect a description of existing research for most of the introduction, and after that, several statements about knowledge gaps that remain, setting the stage for what the authors researched. While reading through the manuscript, consider whether the paper matches your expectations and write down your thoughts. Does all the information appear in the places you expect to see it? Is the information at each place sufficient for you to understand the study, or is there too little or too much information? Is the writing clear? Have the authors convinced you that the study is original and necessary? Do you agree with their interpretation of the results?

Focus on the methods and data to evaluate the scientific rigor of the study. The core content that determines if the science in the manuscript is on solid footing is the methodology and data. If the methods are suitable and the data are sound, the study has merit even if the presentation is not ideal. If the methodology or data are not satisfactory, is it because important details are missing, or because additional experiments or analyses are needed? Whether or what additional experiments are needed may depend on the scope and competitiveness of the journal.

Formulate your suggestions. After you have gathered your questions for each section of the paper, consider the study as a whole and try to provide solutions to all of your questions. Perhaps the answer to a question you had while reading an earlier section of the paper is found in a later section, then suggesting the authors to move that piece of information can easily fix the problem. What information can be added to make the authors’ arguments convincing? How can the introduction and discussion be adjusted to align with the actual data?

Compile the review report. The review report should be polite, well organized, and written clearly. This F1000Research page provides excellent examples.

Structure of the review report

Summary paragraph. Begin the report with a paragraph that summarizes what the authors presented in the manuscript, what the authors did right in the manuscript, and the major concerns you have. This shows the editor and authors that you have thoroughly read and evaluated the article. It also gives the authors positive feedback.

Your decision. To help the journal editor make the final decision, state your suggestion whether the paper should be accepted, rejected, or revised.

A list of your criticisms. Below the summary paragraph give a numbered list of the problems you identified, in the same order as they appear in the manuscript. Use page and line or paragraph numbers so that the authors can easily find the issues you identified. Describe your concern and provide a suggestion on how to address each point.

Once you complete the review report, check it over to make sure you have not missed anything, and the wording is concise, clear, and respectful before sending to the journal editor. The authors will be grateful for your feedback, and you will feel glad that you have helped some fellow researchers.

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