Reviewing Manuscripts for Peer-Reviewed Journals: How-to guide

So- you’ve been asked to peer-review a manuscript for a journal?

First off..make sure that the request is from a credible source (aka a credible Journal). There are many scam/fake peer-review open access journals out there, all with names that sound very similar to credible journals and all in the name of profit. You don’t want to contribute to these fake-journals. Here is an article on this issue, and another website listing some of the potential scam-journals (although there are more being added everyday!).

If it is a reputable peer-review journal- Congratulations! This means that you have been selected based on your experience, reputation and scientific merit!

Second: How do you start? What do you write? 

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These were my questions when I was first asked to write a review for a manuscript in 2012. I was still a graduate student, slightly in disbelief that the journal had chosen me -little me- to review the manuscript for them!

Of course my go-to person for advice at that time was my amazing PhD advisor – (Dr. Nicholas Mills, UC Berkeley). He gave me a great outline and starting point- which I will share my rendition of below (disclaimer:  I have edited his original outline and so if you disagree with anything then just blame me!)

Feel free to leave a comment on any points I might be missing!

My guide to reviewing a manuscript (by section):

  1. Summary of study (2-3 sentences): a) what the objective of the study is, b) how the study was approached and c) what the main conclusions from the study are.
  2. Overall Edits/Comments: – Is the MS is well written and presented? (Ie- Could the flow of the manuscript be improved? Is there clear topic sentences in each paragraph?  Are there run-on sentences or fragments? Does the manuscript have reasonable English/grammar if non English-speaking authors? Are there any consistent mistakes presented throughout the manuscript (i.e. is the word ‘the’ missing frequently?) *Note, you can also comment on whether the manuscript is suitable for the Journal aim and scope, but usually the editor has already done this before sending off to the reviewers.

After the initial summary, it is best to address any issues in the below sections one by one referring to Page or Line number of the text.

As an example- you could write “P5, L13 – This sentence doesn’t make sense and needs to be clarified and rewritten”. Although this example is a bit vague, and its always good to include as many helpful details as possible to the author.

It is also useful to point out spelling mistakes or grammatical errors as a list of minor points again referred to by page and line number.

  1. Abstract: Does the Abstract accurately represent what was studied and found in the manuscript? Is the Abstract stand-alone in content? (ie- can you understand everything in the Abstract without having read the full manuscript?) Are all acronyms and species defined in Abstract (no abbreviations should be used here)
  2. Introduction: Does the introduction give a thorough background of what is already known and include the relevant literature?  (Make suggestions of any omissions here). Does the end of the Intro have a set of hypotheses or objectives that will be addressed by the study?
  3. Methods: Is the method’s section is clear?  Would you be able to repeat every step of the process yourself from the information provided? (ie- a lot of manuscripts are often unclear in this section). Point out any steps that that need greater clarification and make sure that the study includes sufficient replication. Do the stated replicates in the methods match the degrees of freedom (N -1) in the results section? Lastly- are the methods valid? (ie- are there appropriate controls and treatments? Is there appropriate replication and randomization? Were all of the experiments performed under the same conditions or at the same time? If not, how did they account for the variability?)
  4. Data analysis: Is there a data analysis section (there should be one!) Does the statistical approach appear solid? Can you tell exactly how the data was handled (i.e. how the measurements taken translate to variables used in the stats models)? (This often an area where clarification is needed). Again-do the degrees of freedom match the number of replicates? Is there any evidence of pseudoreplication? (If there is pseudoreplication- suggest using blocks and random effects via mixed models).  Was transformation of the data necessary? Were correct error distributions used for the type of data?
  5. Results: Are the results clearly presented with full statistical details (F, df, P rather than just P)? Does the layout of the Results match the sequence of observations presented in the Methods? Do any Tables or Figures contain too little information that could be better presented just as text? Do the Fig and Table legends, axis legends make sense and tell you what you need to know? (Figure and Table legends should be ‘stand-alone’, and should have all species names and acronyms spelled out and descriptions of the treatments.)
  6. Discussion: Does the Discussion follow the same order/sequence as the methods and results? Does the Discussion stay on track and address the Objectives and Results? Is the Discussion too long? Could the Discussion be reduced in places? Does the Discussion address the hypotheses or objectives presented at the end of the Intro? Are all of the statements/conclusions justified by the Results obtained?  Are the limitations of the study appropriately discussed?
  7. References: Are all of the in-text references in the bibliography? Are all of the references consistent in capitalization (only nouns and first words should be capitalized)? Are all species names italicized? Are all journal names presented consistently? Do all references follow the preferred journal citation style?
  8. Acknowledgements: Are there any conflicting funding sources that might affect the results in the study?

Good luck! You can do it (especially with a cup of coffee)!

I will be joining you in spirit this weekend while I write my own review for a recent request I received.

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