how to referee a paper

December 11, 2009 at 8:55 am | | how-to, literature, science community

Here are some pointers about how to referee a scientific journal article. I’ve picked these up both from having refereed papers myself (with my PIs) and more importantly from reading referee reports (good and bad) of my own manuscripts.

  1. Be timely. Editors often proceed with the publication process after getting back only two (or sometimes one) review. If yours is the third to come back, it may be too late. I’ve learned the hard way that, if you take too long to submit your review, your hard work might be all for naught. Of course, it is totally inappropriate to sit on a review purposefully to give yourself time to scoop a competitor.
  2. Be positive. Authors will be more willing to make the changes you suggest if you “sandwich” the constructive criticism between positive comments about the manuscript. It’s easy as a reviewer to only see the bad and forget that the science and writing took a lot of effort from the authors.
  3. Organize your criticisms. At minimum, split the changes you’re asking for into essential and minor. For instance, don’t bury a serious problem you found among a bunch of nit-picky points. First list the essential changes that need to be made in order to make the manuscript publishable, then you may list typos and minor points if you wish. This way, the authors (and editors) will immediately understand your assessment of the paper, and not get offended by what feels like an endless list of complaints. Remember: you’re a referee of the science, not an editor. UPDATE: Also, as MRW says in the comments, write your report so it can be responded to point-by-point.
  4. Do unto others… Remember what you appreciate in a review of your own manuscripts (and what drove you mad), and go from there. The authors are not your enemies—even though some of them torture you with their unclear writing and lackluster science—treat them like you would want to be treated.
  5. But be a good filter. Don’t let fatally bad science into the literature.

The best referees are the ones that help the authors make the paper better. Try to be that kind of referee. The worst are the ones that don’t read the manuscript closely enough, then unfairly criticize it. The just plain unhelpful are the ones who just say “publish as is.”

I’m sure I have a lot more to learn, but these are some things I’ve picked up so far. Others?

(Later, I’ll talk about how to respond to referee reports of your own manuscripts.)


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  1. On the contrary, my strategy is to sit on it for as long as possible because the chances are I won’t have to review it at all -> no hard work.

    Comment by Kendall — December 11, 2009 #

  2. great post! particularly point 3. i will make a point of doing this from now on.

    Comment by joel — December 11, 2009 #

  3. yes, just wait a loooong time, then say “publish as is.”

    Comment by sam — December 11, 2009 #

  4. I’ve got one: make your comments in a way that they can be responded to point-by-point. Editors like a point by point response so that they can easily check to see whether everything has been suitably replied to, but some reviewers write their comments in such a way that this is very difficult.

    Comment by MRW — December 15, 2009 #

  5. that’s a good one. i’ll add that to #3.

    Comment by sam — December 15, 2009 #

  6. […] that I’ve listed some pointers on how to write a referee report, I want to discuss how to respond to reviews of your own manuscript. Again, I’m still a […]

    Pingback by Everyday Scientist » how to respond to referees — December 15, 2009 #

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