Doing a peer review is bloody difficult, and not an easy step to take for anyone. I remember the first time I got a review request in the second year of my PhD. An Editor emails you out of the blue, and asks you to provide your expert commentary on research by your colleagues.
EXPERT COMMENTARY. BUT I’M NO EXPERT. PANIC.
Well, you are an expert to some degree. Which is why they emailed you in the first place. Someone out there likes you. Don’t decline a review request because you don’t think you’re qualified, ready, or good enough. None of these reasons are supported by the fact that YOU just got asked to contribute. The only reason you should ever decline a review is if it’s completely irrelevant to your area of expertise.
So let’s say you tentatively accept, and are sent a top secret document which your colleagues have spent years pouring all of their hard work into. And you, you are the one who gets to review it and decide if it’s valid research. No pressure then.
So how do we take the pressure off?
Getting started is the toughest part. What do you write about? How do you get your criticisms, positive and negative ones, across in a way that’s best for the authors to digest and use? What language do I use? What if I miss something important?
Well, these are all valid issues that we need to take into account.
So take this general template (totally editable by anyone who wants to help out) and use it as the basis for drafting your referee report. Different journals with have slightly different layouts, so you can adapt this as needed. But this framework is good for making sure that you include everything you need to be comprehensive. It’s divided into the main sections of a manuscript and the key points that you should be on the look out for each one. Please do contribute anything that is missing, and please do share this with colleagues who might be looking to step into the murky world of peer review.
Some other key points:
- Be thorough. Go through every sentence, write down every thought or query you have. It all helps.
- Be extra thorough. Go through it all a second time, maybe a third, after taking a break from it.
- Don’t be a twat. Researchers are still people you know, no matter how often they come across more like rat-cyborg-zombies. Be courteous.
- If there is something good, highlight it. Don’t be afraid of telling someone they did well.
- If there is something bad, highlight it. Don’t be afraid of telling someone they made a mistake.
- Think about the kind of feedback you’d want, and provide that.
- Don’t be self-obsessive or egotistical. Self-citation recommendations are okay, just not 100s of them.
- If you’re gonna get personal, take it away from peer review. This is a place for scientific discourse, not petty squabbles. That’s what Twitter is for.
- Read a paper like your friend is writing it. You don’t want them to fuck up do you, so give them the best possible feedback so that they produce the best work they can.
And of course, check with the Editor before accepting anything about what you are actually allowed to do with your review report.
Also, check out the Peer Reviewers Openness Initiative, if that’s your sort of thang.