Getting Started as a Peer Reviewer

Are you thinking about being a peer reviewer but aren’t sure where to start? Are you concerned that you don’t have enough experience to review a manuscript for a journal?

Here are ten easy things you can do to prepare to be a reviewer and put yourself in a position to start reviewing. Some of these are so simple you can do them in the next five minutes. Get started now!

 

 

1. Update your public profile

Keep your department or personal website current and make sure it includes relevant keywords about your research areas.

2. Be findable

Make sure your email address is easy to find and up to date.

3. Read, read, read

Stay up to date with the published literature in your field (via journal eTOC alerts or RSS feeds, among others). When you read an article, think about how you would evaluate it if you were reviewing it for a journal. Also read articles that are published with the reviewer comments online.

4. Keep up the good work

Editors often select reviewers by looking at the references in published articles. By continuing to conduct your research and report the results, you’ll help editors find you, and match you to the kinds of studies you want to read.

5. Get a unique personal identifier

Sign up for an ORCID iD and authorize ORCID to link up your publications.

6. Find a mentor

Let your supervisor know that you are interested in doing peer review. Ask if you might be able to coauthor a review with your supervisor. Use the confidential comments section of the review form to share your name with the journal. Some journals also might have mentoring programs for junior reviewers.

7. Go to conferences

Give presentations or participate on panels at conferences to start getting known among others in your field. Network with journal editors attending the conferences.

8. Get active on social media

Follow and connect with experts in your field via Twitter, LinkedIn, or other platforms.

9. Join (or start!) a journal club

Find or form a group at your university or institution to get practice evaluating research with your peers.

10. Practice writing about research

Get involved in open peer review (e.g., F1000 Research), join preprint discussions on bioRxiv or PREreview, or add post-publication article comments on journal websites.

 

Review

When you get an invitation to review a manuscript for a journal, what’s the first thing you should do? How do you decide whether to accept or decline? If you say yes, then what?
This guide walks you through the process of responding to an invitation and provides quick tips for getting ready to do the review once you’ve accepted the invitation.

Some Reminders

First of all, it’s okay to decline the invitation. You do not have to say yes to everything! If you have doubts about your ability to do the review, it is much better to say no up front than to step down later on.

When to Say Yes

If you are interested in reviewing the manuscript, make sure it’s a good fit for you by asking yourself three questions. If you can answer yes to all three, go ahead and accept the invitation.

1. Am I the right person to review this manuscript?

You should only review a manuscript if it matches your area of expertise. Even if the topic sounds fascinating, don’t agree to review if you do not have the expertise.

If you’re not sure you have the right expertise, or if you think you could provide an expert evaluation of one aspect of the manuscript but not all of it, get in touch with the journal to see what they need.

No matter what, it’s important that you feel comfortable offering your opinion.

2. Do I have time to do the review by the journal’s deadline?

Don’t overcommit: make sure you have enough time to provide a thorough review. If you want to review but think you might need extra time to get it done, let the editor know as soon as possible so that they can alert the author or contact another reviewer if necessary.

3. Can I provide an objective review?

Before you respond to the invitation, check the author list in case you have past or present collaborations with any authors, or any other potentially competing interests. You should decline the invitation if an outside observer might reasonably feel that your review was negatively or positively biased by a competing interest.

If you’re not sure if you have a competing interest, or think you have one but it won’t compromise your objectivity, get in touch with the journal. The journal might want you to review anyway, depending on the situation.

Related guide

Competing interests for reviewers

Whether you accept or decline the assignment, try to respond to the invitation as quickly as you can. It’s not fair to the authors to keep them waiting.

How to say no: Tips for declining an invitation

You can still be helpful to the journal even if you decline an invitation to review. Tell the journal if you know of other researchers who might be qualified to review the manuscript. This will help keep the review process moving quickly.

It’s also a good idea to let the journal know why you’re declining the invitation. For instance, if you said no because you don’t have the right expertise, the journal will know to contact a different reviewer for similar papers in the future. But if you decline because you don’t have enough time, the journal can keep you in mind for a similar assignment later on.

Getting Started

Once you’ve accepted the invitation, get yourself prepared to do the review. Here are three quick things you can do that are helpful to check sooner rather than later:

  • System access. Make sure you can sign in to the peer review system and access the manuscript and other submission files.
  • Journal guidelines. See if the journal has specific guidelines for reviewers. Are there special instructions or other things to take into account? What are the criteria for publication? Keep these expectations and standards in mind from the very beginning.
  • Review structure and format. Make sure you know how your review will need to be formatted. Does the journal want you to respond to specific questions in a structured reviewer form? Will you need to recommend a specific decision action, e.g., major revision? You might also want to find out whether the journal has an open review option. Decide whether or not you will sign your name to your review.

Tip: Managing your workload

It’s up to you to decide if you have enough time to take on a reviewing assignment. If you find yourself getting a lot of invitations, it can help to set a goal or limit for how many assignments to take each week or each month.

If you’re having trouble fitting your reviewing work into your schedule, think about setting aside a specific time each day (or each week) to work on your reviews. Mark this on your calendar to make it more official.

Do you have another tip for managing your workload as a reviewer? Share it with us!

Now you’re ready to start your review!

How to Read a Manuscript as a Peer Reviewer

What should you focus on when you review a scientific manuscript? This guide walks you through the process of reading a paper and identifying key things to mention in your review.

Important Reminders

You have two main jobs as a reviewer:

  1. Determine whether the authors’ claims are supported
  2. Help the journal editors make their decision

Journal editors make their decisions based on the journal’s publication criteria, read these before you start your review. Remember that the editors may not be experts in the field. They need you because of your specialized knowledge and technical expertise. They do not need you to be a copy editor.

Getting Started

The first step when reading is to figure out what the authors are trying to claim. It might be helpful to ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the study about? What is the main research question?
  • What is the approach? What did the authors do to address their research question?
  • What is the context? How does the study relate to published literature on this topic?
  • What are the conclusions? What are the authors’ main findings and what evidence do they provide for these conclusions?

Make sure you read the entire manuscript, including the figures. You should expect to read through the manuscript at least twice. It’s generally a good idea to read start to finish, but this is not always the case.

Here’s one way to read the manuscript that involves going a bit out of order:

  1. Read the abstract and introduction to get a sense of the overall context and approach (if the abstract and introduction do not do a good job summarizing the findings, you might need to read further to get this information).
  2. Look at the figures and tables carefully in conjunction with the results.
  3. Read the conclusions.
  4. Then read the whole thing from beginning to end.

Take lots of notes as you go along to get a jump start on writing your report.

Paper or pixels: What's your reading style?

Do you prefer reading on screen or holding a hard copy? Whether you prefer to mark up an online PDF, or take notes with a pen or pencil, it’s up to you to come up with a reviewing method that works for you.

Recent surveys of WOOS reviewers indicate that 43% prefer to read manuscripts in hard copy. Want to help us gather more data about peer review? Tell us how you like to read:

Tips for Specific Sections

Here’s a section-by-section guide of things to look for. You might want to take notes about what each section includes and identify the strengths and weaknesses.

Abstract and introduction

The introduction sets the stage. The authors should explain why the study matters and put the research in context.

  • Do the authors summarize the main research question and key findings?
  • Do the authors identify other literature on the topic and explain how the study relates to this previously published research?

Figures and tables

Make sure the manuscript text supports the data shown in the figures and tables. Do not just take the figures and tables at face value.

  • Are the figures and tables clear and readable? (Keep in mind that depending on the submission system you’re working in, you might have to click a link to view the high-resolution versions of the authors’ figures).
  • Are the figure and table captions complete and accurate?
  • Are the axes labeled correctly?
  • Is the presentation appropriate for the type of data being presented?
  • Do the figures and tables support the findings?

Methods

When you assess the methods used in the study, you are looking to determine whether the research is technically sound. Some questions you might consider, depending on the type of study, include:

  • What experiments or interventions were used?
  • Are the experiments or interventions appropriate for addressing the research question?
  • Are conditions adequate and the right controls in place?
  • Is there enough data to draw a conclusion?
  • Do the authors address any possible limitations of the research?
  • Was data collected and interpreted accurately?
  • Do the authors follow best practices for reporting?
  • Does the study conform to ethical guidelines?
  • Could another researcher reproduce the study with the same methods? In other words, have the authors provided enough information to validate the study?

Results, discussion, conclusions

  • Do the results support the conclusions?
  • Do the conclusions overreach?
  • Do the authors discuss any limitations of the study?
  • If the journal selects based on advance in the field does the study demonstrate this advance?

Statistical analysis

Is the statistical analysis adequate? If you do not have the expertise to consider the statistics, make sure you mention this in your report.

Data and supporting information

  • Do the data provide enough evidence for the authors’ conclusions?
  • Are the necessary data points provided?
  • Have the authors provided a sufficient amount of data and information for other researchers to recreate the analyses?

Reminder: Keep it confidential!

Reviewing manuscripts is a great way to stay on top of the latest research in your field. Just remember that everything you have access to as a reviewer needs to stay confidential until the work is published. We know it can be exciting to read about a new discovery or development, but avoid the temptation to talk to other people about the research, and never use the information for your own personal gain.

For more helpful tips about best practices in the review process, check out our ethics guide for reviewers.

Other Things to Check

Here are some additional things to look at when you’re reading.

Writing quality & clarity

As a reviewer, you should focus on the substance of the research rather than the writing. If you think the quality of the writing needs to be improved, don’t spend your time pointing out individual typos and other minor details. Just mention in your comments that you recommend language editing.

Plagiarism

If you have reason to believe the authors might have plagiarized, contact the journal immediately. If there is a confidential comments to the editor section of the reviewer report add your concerns there.

Reference list

Check the references in the manuscript. Mention any literature that is missing from the list, but don’t use this as an opportunity to request citations for your own work.

Wrapping Up

After you have carefully read the manuscript and taken notes on overall strengths and weaknesses, take another look at the journal’s publication criteria and reviewer guidelines. Determine if you need to look at any part of the manuscript again. Go over your notes and decide what you’ll recommend to the journal.

Tip: How much time should you spend on the review?

It can take time to complete a good review, and some types of studies might take you longer than others. Be prepared for reviewing to take longer when you’re just starting out. As you gain more experience, you’ll probably start to work more quickly. Everyone reviews differently so there’s no specific benchmark to strive for.

In general, it’s a good idea to spread your work out over a couple of days (or at least a couple of sessions). Sleep on it! Give your thoughts time to develop.

If you’re not sure how much time to spend on the review, or if you’re having trouble managing the amount of time you’re spending, try setting a timer for yourself or blocking out a specific time of day to get the work done.

You’ve read the manuscript and taken lots of notes. Now you’re ready to write your report!

How to Write a Peer Review

When you write a peer review for a manuscript, what should you include in your comments? What should you leave out? And how should the review be formatted? This guide provides quick tips for writing and organizing your reviewer report.

Review Outline

Use an outline for your reviewer report so it’s easy for the editors and author to follow. This will also help you keep your comments organized.

Think about structuring your review like an inverted pyramid. Put the most important information at the top, followed by details and examples in the center, and any additional points at the very bottom.

Graphic of upside down pyramid representing a peer review outline

Here’s how your outline might look:

1. Summary of the research and your overall impression

In your own words, summarize what the manuscript claims to report. This shows the editor how you interpreted the manuscript and will highlight any major differences in perspective between you and the other reviewers. Give an overview of the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses. Think about this as your “take-home” message for the editors. End this section with your recommended course of action.

2. Discussion of specific areas for improvement

It’s helpful to divide this section into two parts: one for major issues and one for minor issues. Within each section, you can talk about the biggest issues first or go systematically figure-by-figure or claim-by-claim. Number each item so that your points are easy to follow (this will also make it easier for the authors to respond to each point). Refer to specific lines, pages, sections, or figure and table numbers so the authors (and editors) know exactly what you’re talking about.

Major vs. minor issues

What’s the difference between a major and minor issue? Major issues should consist of the essential points the authors need to address before the manuscript can proceed. Make sure you focus on what is fundamental for the current study. In other words, it’s not helpful to recommend additional work that would be considered the “next step” in the study. Minor issues are still important but typically will not affect the overall conclusions of the manuscript. Here are some examples of what would might go in the “minor” category:
  • Missing references (but depending on what is missing, this could also be a major issue)
  • Technical clarifications (e.g., the authors should clarify how a reagent works)
  • Data presentation (e.g., the authors should present p-values differently)
  • Typos, spelling, grammar, and phrasing issues

3. Any other points

Confidential comments for the editors

Some journals have a space for reviewers to enter confidential comments about the manuscript. Use this space to mention concerns about the submission that you’d want the editors to consider before sharing your feedback with the authors, such as concerns about ethical guidelines or language quality. Any serious issues should be raised directly and immediately with the journal as well.

This section is also where you will disclose any potentially competing interests, and mention whether you’re willing to look at a revised version of the manuscript.

Do not use this space to critique the manuscript, since comments entered here will not be passed along to the authors. If you’re not sure what should go in the confidential comments, read the reviewer instructions or check with the journal first before submitting your review. If you are reviewing for a journal that does not offer a space for confidential comments, consider writing to the editorial office directly with your concerns.

Giving Feedback

Giving feedback is hard. Giving effective feedback can be even more challenging.

Remember that your ultimate goal is to discuss what the authors would need to do in order to qualify for publication.

The point is not to nitpick every piece of the manuscript. Your focus should be on providing constructive and critical feedback that the authors can use to improve their study.

If you’ve ever had your own work reviewed, you already know that it’s not always easy to receive feedback. Follow the golden rule: Write the type of review you’d want to receive if you were the author. Even if you decide not to identify yourself in the review, you should write comments that you would be comfortable signing your name to.

In your comments, use phrases like “the authors’ discussion of X” instead of “your discussion of X.” This will depersonalize the feedback and keep the focus on the manuscript instead of the authors.

General guidelines for effective feedback

Don’t…
  • Recommend additional experiments or  unnecessary elements that are out of scope for the study or for the journal criteria.
  • Tell the authors exactly how to revise their manuscript—you don’t need to do their work for them.
  • Use the review to promote your own research or hypotheses.
  • Focus on typos and grammar. If the manuscript needs significant editing for language and writing quality, just mention this in your comments.
  • Submit your review without proofreading it and checking everything one more time.
Do…
  • Justify your recommendation with concrete evidence and specific examples.
  • Be specific so the authors know what they need to do to improve.
  • Be thorough. This might be the only time you read the manuscript.
  • Be professional and respectful. The authors will be reading these comments too.
  • Remember to say what you liked about the manuscript!

 

Before and After: Sample Reviewer Comments

Keeping in mind the guidelines above, how do you put your thoughts into words? Here are some sample “before” and “after” reviewer comments.

Before

After


✗ “The authors appear to have no idea what they are talking about. I don’t think they have read any of the literature on this topic.”

✓ “The study fails to address how the findings relate to previous research in this area. The authors should rewrite their Introduction and Discussion to reference the related literature, especially recently published work such as Darwin et al.”


✗ “The writing is so bad, it is practically unreadable. I could barely bring myself to finish it.”

✓ “While the study appears to be sound, the language is unclear, making it difficult to follow. I advise the authors work with a writing coach or copyeditor to improve the flow and readability of the text.”


✗ “It’s obvious that this type of experiment should have been included. I have no idea why the authors didn’t use it. This is a big mistake.”

✓ “The authors are off to a good start, however, this study requires additional experiments, particularly [type of experiment]. Alternatively, the authors should include more information that clarifies and justifies their choice of methods.”

Suggested Language for Tricky Situations

You might find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure how to explain the problem or provide feedback in a constructive and respectful way. Here is some suggested language for common issues you might experience.

What you think: The manuscript is fatally flawed.
What you could say: “The study does not appear to be sound” or “the authors have missed something crucial”.

What you think: You don’t completely understand the manuscript.
What you could say: “The authors should clarify the following sections to avoid confusion…”

What you think: The technical details don’t make sense.
What you could say: “The technical details should be expanded and clarified to ensure that readers understand exactly what the researchers studied.”

What you think: The writing is terrible.
What you could say: “The authors should revise the language to improve readability.”

What you think: The authors have over-interpreted the findings.
What you could say: “The authors aim to demonstrate [XYZ], however, the data does not fully support this conclusion. Specifically…”

What does a good review look like?

Check out the peer review examples at F1000 Research to see how other reviewers write up their reports and give constructive feedback to authors.

Time to Submit the Review!

Be sure you turn in your report on time. Need an extension? Tell the journal so that they know what to expect. If you need a lot of extra time, the journal might need to contact other reviewers or notify the author about the delay.

Tip: Building a relationship with an editor

You’ll be more likely to be asked to review again if you provide high-quality feedback and if you turn in the review on time. Especially if it’s your first review for a journal, it’s important to show that you are reliable. Prove yourself once and you’ll get asked to review again!

 

Peer Review Template

Think about structuring your reviewer report like an upside-down pyramid. The most important information goes at the top, followed by supporting details.

Sample outline

1. Summary of the research and your overall impression

In your own words, summarize the main research question, claims, and conclusions of the study. Provide context for how this research fits within the existing literature.

Discuss the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses and your overall recommendation.

2. Evidence and examples

Major issues

Major issues must be addressed in order for the manuscript to proceed. Focus on what is essential for the current study, not the next step in the research. Put these items in a list and be as specific as possible.

Minor issues

Mention additional things the authors should do to improve the manuscript. Typically these will be changes that would not affect the overall conclusions.

3. Other points (optional)

If applicable, add confidential comments for the editors. Raise any concerns about the manuscript that they may need to consider further, such as concerns about ethics. Do not use this section for your overall critique. Also mention whether you might be available to look at a revised version.

International Distribution of WoOS' Reviewers
World map showing the geographic distribution of WoOS Reviewers
31%
North America
3%
South America
44%
Europe
0%
Middle East
15%
Asia
4%
Oceania
1%
Africa
Reviewer's Affiliations: Top 20
  • 02004006008001,0001,2001,4001,6001,800
  • University of California
  • 166
  • CNRS
  • 120
  • Harvard University
  • 86
  • University of Texas
  • 84
  • Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • 70
  • INSERM
  • 65
  • State University of Florida
  • 64
  • Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)
  • 63
  • National Institutes of Health
  • 58
  • Italian National Research Council (CNR)
  • 52
  • Helmholtz Assoc. of Research Centres (HZ)
  • 51
  • University College London
  • 47
  • INRA
  • 39
  • Max Planck Society (MPG)
  • 39
  • Sapienza University of Rome
  • 38
  • Stanford University
  • 37
  • State University of New York (SUNY)
  • 37
  • Universidade de São Paulo
  • 36
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • 36
  • University of Michigan
  • 34