Ultimate Checklist: How To Peer-Review Scientific Papers and Manuscripts

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Peer-Reviewing for Beginners and Experts

It’s no secret that peer-review- or reviewers, lie at the heart of most scientific publishing processes. In essence, peer-review systems exist to validate and improve the quality of research papers and help increase your recognition and networking possibilities in the field.

Sooner or later, every researcher or academician like yourself is bound to get involved in peer-reviews; either as the author whose paper is getting reviewed or a reviewer reviewing someone else’s paper.

Yet, peer-reviewing is not a skill that is taught in colleges and universities. For most researchers structuring a constructive peer-review, especially the first time can be a daunting task.

To ease the hassle and help you construct ‘good’ peer-reviews, we’ve divided the entire process into a 3 phased workflow. By the end of the following checklist, you’ll know:

  1. When should you accept or decline a peer-review invitation?
  2. How should you approach a paper you’re reviewing?
  3. What should you check in a paper you’re reviewing?
  4. How to construct a proper peer review?

Ready? Let’s dive in.

A. Before the review: Whether to Accept or Decline a Peer-Review Invitation

When it comes to choosing whether to accept or decline a review invitation, consider ticking off the following 4 factors:

1. Expertise: Does the paper in question match your field and level of expertise?

2. Interest: Does the title or subject matter of the paper in question peek your interest?

3. Time: Do you have adequate time at hand to meet the deadlines?

4. Conflict: Are you free of any kind of conflict of interest?

These questions might seem obvious, but it’s unfortunate how many of us skip this part. It’s always a good idea to take a step back and evaluate whether you have the time, knowledge and curiosity for a paper before committing to it.

B. Approaching the Review: First Reading

Once you’ve decided to accept a manuscript for review, it’s time to give it a first read through. The purpose of the first reading should be to familiarize yourself with the research, the results and its wider context.

To get the most out of your first reading:

5. Answer key questions about the paper’s originality and subject matter

Here we’re referring to understanding the value the research paper adds to its respective field. Remember to answer the following two questions as you read the paper the first time:

i) How original is the research presented? Google Scholar could be your best friend here. A simple search should tell you if papers presented before have already dived into the same experiment or study.

ii) Does the research paper add new value to the field?

6. Ask key questions about the paper’s structure, language and grammar

Just as important as understanding the core topic, it’s important to focus on the structure and language used in the paper you’re reviewing. Again, make a note of:

i) How clear is the language used in the paper?

ii) Is there room for improvement in terms of word choice and sentence structure? Are there grammatical errors?

iii)

C. Structuring your Review: Second Reading

The third phase boils down to actually reviewing the nitty-gritty details of the paper. Here, you need to focus on each and every section and point out ‘minor’ and ‘major’ flaws and suggest improvements.

7. Check the Methods and Tools Section

Especially crucial for paper based on an experiment or process, the methods section says a lot about the overall quality of the study. When reviewing the methods section, keep an eye out for major flaws like incorrect or missing methods.

Ideally, the methods used by the author should-

i) be accurately described with adequate information on how, when and where the study was performed

ii) produce the same result if replicated with the data and tools presented

iii) Include proper references to existing methods and elaborate on how the method used is better or more accurate than those

iv) clearly define the tools and materials used

If needed, you may suggest missing or additional methods that might bump up the quality of the paper.

8. Check the accuracy and authenticity of the Statistics and Data Section

Most scientific papers include a statistical section and the result of the study usually heavily depends on it. It is important to focus on the quality, accuracy and readability of the data points used in any statistical analysis or data visualizations.

Some questions you want to answer as you review this section:

i) Does the data meet the assumptions and aims of the study in question?

ii) Have appropriate statistical models been used? If not, suggest better alternatives.

iii) Have sufficient data points been used? Is anything missing?

iv) Do figures and tables include the sample size and measures of uncertainty like std error or confidence variables?

9. Deep dive into the Results section

Most readers of scientific papers usually tend to look at the title, abstract and results section to get an understanding of the study. Needless to say, you should read through the results section with a keen eye.

Constructive comments on how the result can be made clearer and full-proof are always welcome by authors.

Here-

i) The test should clearly state the findings, without any fluff or exaggeration

ii) Check that the results doesn’t contradict the data and methodology in any way

10. Don’t ignore the Conclusion section

The conclusion and discussion section essentially gives the study at hand a stand with respect to previous studies in the field and sheds light on what it means for future research.

Make a note if the author has not made this clear. If you believe there is a wider scope of the research, mention it in your comments.

Ask if:

i) the conclusion matches the aim of the study

ii) the author has explained how the study impacts future research

iii) there are any limitations that the author has skipped

Make sure to comment on all the above.

11. Give an unbiased recommendation

In the end, you need to provide your recommendation to the editor. This could either be ‘Accept’, ‘Reject’ or ‘Revise’.

Since your goal is to facilitate the advance of research in your field, make sure you’re not overtly negative. Unless the research is absolutely unnecessary or has too many major flaws, consider suggesting revisions.

Point out the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the paper. It’s a good idea to start by summarizing your understanding of the paper. This could be supported with your most important positive comments, followed by major and minor flaws.

Wrapping Up

A ‘bad’ or vague peer-review can be frustrating for the author as well as the editors. It is important to stay fair and take a genuine interest in improving the paper you need to review.

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