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My top tips for being a good reviewer

Published: 22 Oct 2018
Category:
By Alister McNeish

“Why is it always Reviewer 3?”

We have all said it when we’ve felt we’ve been the victim of a poor, unfair or even ill-informed peer review. You know the dreaded third reviewer, but have you ever considered that YOU may be THAT reviewer?

The peer review process is constantly debated but one aspect that is often overlooked is training on how to be a constructive but critical reviewer. The scientific process is a naturally critical one: we are trained to disprove ideas, look for holes in an argument and consider alternative interpretations. But no study, however well conducted, is ever perfect; it is always possible to find deficiencies. This can make it all too easy to focus on the negative, even in a good study.

I recently stepped down after seven years as an editor for the British Journal of Pharmacology (BJP). I want to use what I have seen and learned in that time to share my top tips on how to be a constructive and objective – yet critical – reviewer.

  1. Should you review this paper? You can review papers out of “your area” if you understand the methodologies employed and the basics of good study design. But it is usually better to focus on what you do understand and be clear about what you can’t objectively comment on. If you are short on time but want to review, tell the journal and you may get an extension.
  2. Talk to the editor. It is not really your role to decide if the paper is accepted or not, that’s the editor’s job. Highlight the points of your review you think are most important or where you don’t feel qualified to comment. It may also be the forum to flag up what you suspect to be poor academic conduct. This can really help make a final decision.

  3. Be honest. For example, if you think the study is good but lacks impact or novelty, tell the authors, and suggest how they may improve. Being rejected or criticised out of hand never helps, but constructive advice can.

  4. Don’t be patronising. Would you be offended by the comments you made and the tone used? If so why write it?

  5. Be succinct. Summarise recurrent flaws in one point. Identify an example of a problem and, if possible, how it could be corrected.

  6. Studies may be conducted differently to how your lab would do them. If something is shown by a valid method (or better still two independent methods) do you really need to demand it is done by your preferred or the latest/trendiest method? They may be asking a different question to what you would ask.

  7. Make demands for further experiments reasonable and realistic. Making authors comment on alternative interpretations is sometimes more appropriate than extensive (or impossible) further experimentation. What they have done may have answered the question they were asking.

  8. Proofread and edit your review – what you wrote may not be what you meant.

  9. In revisions, focus on what you commented on, not new points not raised in the original review. If you feel responses to other reviewers are insufficient or incorrect, perhaps raise that with the editor (the other reviewers should be assessing responses to their comments).

  10. Provide reasons why you think something is good in a similar level of detail to when you think something is wrong. It helps editors; it also makes authors realise that any criticisms may be constructive and makes them more likely to act on them. A detailed positive review may highlight to an editor a petty negative review.

The BJP offers some advice of its own on experimental design, analysis and reporting of results. I’ve also found this 2016 article in the European Journal of Neuroscience useful in the past.

My top tips are by no means a comprehensive list or training guide. In fact, I’d love to start a conversation in the comments section below about what is good practice or not.

I’d also welcome (constructive!) criticism…

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