Five top tips to review an article

One of my colleagues has decided to reveal his name for all reviewing processes in which he is involved because he considers removing anonymity raises his own consciousness during his reviews. I believe the reviewing process, on the contrary, must be anonymous to prevent biased acceptance criteria and favouritism based on friendship. However, I find it instructive to write my evaluation reports as if I was going to put my name on them.

Ferran Macià

Reviewing is an important way to contribute to the academic community. The interaction between authors and reviewers during the publication process determines the final quality of the publications and thus whether or not we give credit to who deserves it and whether or not we award works of good quality. Reviewing an article is an opportunity to learn about a different field or, simply, to learn how others approach a problem similar to ours. Reviewing is a difficult job and we must take it seriously and remember that the reviewing job is meant to help authors improve their work. Here are five tips that could help in writing a reviewing report efficiently.

  1. Read it all over

A first read of the whole text, not too fast and not too slow, should be enough to give us a summary of the key results. It will also give us a first impression of the material we are reviewing and help to reply to basic questions: Did we understand it? Are the title, abstract, and conclusions clear and informative? Is the paper well organised and clearly written? Are the figures and tables (if any) clear and useful? Is all the material included necessary or is there any missing information?

  1. Check the originality of the results?

All journals demand that an accepted work is original and of interest to the community; we must pay special attention to this and provide well-justified arguments, either against or for, before publication recommendation. We may use references to justify the novelty of the work — or the inappropriate repetition of already published material. We are chosen as experts on a certain field and we may provide a “big picture” of where the presented work fits. It does not mean that we provide a forecast on what the impact of the presented work would be without fail, but we must say instead whether the presented work is a significant advance on previous knowledge, and we must provide a justification for our decision based on previous published material.

After a thorough bibliography check we should comment on the appropriateness and adequateness of references with respect to related and previous work.

  1. Review data and methodology

Besides how clear the results are presented and described, we (as researchers) may judge the validity of the approach and the choice of methodology used. We ought to comment on the quality of the data and also on the appropriateness of data analysis, use of statistics, or consideration of uncertainties.

In most cases it is time-consuming to reproduce calculations or data analysis (from experiments) presented in manuscripts but we may check whether all steps required to do it are clearly described so others can reproduce them.

  1. Suggest improvements

Let us remember again that our reviewing job has the aim of helping authors improve their work. We may thus suggest improvements; in particular, we may provide specific comments on what would make the presented work better: new experiments, different or additional data analysis, considerations and possible new interpretations, and also which technical details could be helpful, such as the presentation of figures, or suggestions on whether to expand or shorten a certain manuscript section.

  1. Journal publication criteria: talk to the editor

Finally we need to know the acceptance criteria of the journal we are reviewing for in order to submit our final decision. However, acceptance or rejection is a decision that belongs solely to the editor — we just need to provide a technical report.

We may use the opportunity to talk directly to the editor and outline any informal or sensitive information related to the manuscript. In particular, we may give our thoughts on why the manuscript fits or does not fit the journal criteria.

Ferran Macià