A peer review checklist

Earlier this year, I compiled some of my notes on best practices in peer reviewing (in a handy format). After sharing these with colleagues, I thought it best to make them available more widely, so here they are!


A peer review checklist

Have you been invited to peer review an article? If so, then this checklist is for you! Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned reviewer, read on to find out more about the professional expectations associated with peer reviewing.

(Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert! I have merely synthesised information I have found online, and the knowledge I have obtained from talking to various people).

Before you take on the review

  • Make sure that the manuscript is in your area of expertise.
  • Check if there are any special requests before starting the work.
  • Make sure that you have enough time and attention to devote to reviewing the manuscript.

Time commitment/time management

  • On average, a peer review takes between 4 and 8 hours to do (depending on the length of the manuscript).
  • Peer reviews should not be completed in one sitting. Usually, the reviewer will do one pass over the text and note down general comments. Then, they will come back to the manuscript later for a more detailed reading.
  • Aim for a peer review that is thorough, but that does not eat up more time than intended. If something is unclear, ask the author to rework or reword it. Do not do their research for them; that is not your job as a reviewer. You can speculate as to why something does not add up, and while you can give general suggestions, you do not need to be too specific when doing this. For instance, you can say “Please change the title to something that implements X and Y”. You do not need to come up with a list of alternative titles for the paper yourself (unless you really want to).
  • If you don’t like the work, but can’t quite put your finger on why you don’t like it, then you haven’t checked it thoroughly enough. Read the manuscript again. Any comments provided should be backed up with evidence. They should also give suggestions for next courses of action if possible.

Writing style

  • Most peer reviews should be written in a neutral tone (not too formal, not too informal). They should be concise.
  • If peer reviewing internally, it is OK to employ a more informal tone. If peer reviewing for a big or reputable journal, strive for formal academic writing.

Structure

  • A good peer review is 1-2 pages long.
  • Some journals will ask for a specific review structure or length, and may provide their own template.
  • If no template is provided, the following good practice rules apply:

Start with the title of the manuscript and the date.

Heading 1: Provide a summary of the research and give your overall impression of the work. This is important: it shows that you have understood what you have read. If it is found that you have misunderstood the work, then the author will get an idea of what they need to change about it. When providing an overall impression, highlight both the good and the bad. Imagine that you are reading this paper because you want to cite it. What may cause you to cite the paper, or to forego citing the paper? Does the main point of the paper come across clearly? Does it make an original contribution to knowledge? Are its empirical components sound? Do the conclusions match the content of the paper? These are all things that should be considered here.

Heading 2: Discussion of specific areas for improvement. Record the most glaring issues with the paper: inconsistencies; missing information; incorrect assumptions; incomplete argumentation. You may wish to go through the paper, do tracked changes, and then use these as your basis for the peer review. Remember to be constructive. What sort of feedback would you like to receive on your own work? Provide the feedback that you would like to get: genuine; reasoned; helpful; specific. Remember that producing written outputs consists of two parts: writing and editing. Often, these take equal amounts of time to do. Knowing the importance of editing, do not be afraid to propose radical changes such as moving a heading, reducing word counts, or adding in graphs. Do not tiptoe around issues: just state what the simplest course of action to rectify an issue might be. If there are several possible courses of action, list all of them, and state which one you consider to be the best. If you don’t know how an issue may be rectified, just state the issue, and leave it at that. (If you do this too much, though, you might be Reviewer 2!!!).

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