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How to Write a Peer Review: 12 things you need to know

Learning how to peer review is no small feat. You’re responsible for protecting the public from false findings and research flaws, while at the same time helping to uncover legitimate breakthroughs. You’re also asked to constructively critique the research of your peers, some of which has taken blood, sweat, tears and years to put together.

This means, somewhat unfortunately, peer review is slightly more complicated than:

Despite this, peer review doesn’t need to be hard or nerve-wracking--or make you feel like you’re doomed to fail.

We’ve put together 12 tips to help with peer review, and you can learn the entire process with our free peer review training course, the Publons Academy. This on-demand, practical course and comes with one-to-one support with your own mentor. You’ll have exclusive access to our peer review template, plenty of expert review examples to learn from, and by the end of it, you’ll not only be a certified reviewer, we’ll help put you in front of editors in your field.

The peer review process

Journal peer review is a critical tool for ensuring the quality and integrity of the research literature. It is the process by which researchers use their expert knowledge of a topic to assess an article for its accuracy and rigor, and to help make sure it builds on and adds to the current literature.

It’s actually a very structured process; it can be learned and improved the more you do it, and you’ll become faster and more confident as time goes on. Soon enough, you’ll even start benefiting from the process yourself.

Peer review not only helps to maintain the quality and integrity of literature in your field, it’s key to your own development as a researcher. It’s a great way to keep abreast of current research, impress editors at elite journals, and hone your critical analysis skills. It teaches you how to review a manuscript, spot common flaws in research papers, and improve your own chances of being a successful published author.

12-step guide to writing a peer review

To get the most out of the peer review process, you'll want to keep some best practice tips and techniques in mind from the start. This will help you write a review around two to three pages (four maximum) in length.

We asked an expert panel of researchers what steps they take to ensure a thorough and robust review. We then compiled their advice into 12 easy steps with link to blog posts for further information:

1) Make sure you have the right expertise. Check out our post, Are you the right reviewer? for our checklist to assess whether you should take on a certain peer review request.

2) Visit the journal web page to learn their reviewer-specific instructions. Check the manuscript fits in the journal format and the references are standardised (if the editor has not already done so).

3) Skim the paper very quickly to get a general sense of the article. Underline key words and arguments, and summarise key points. This will help you quickly “tune in” to the paper during the next read.

4) Sit in a quiet place and read the manuscript critically. Make sure you have the tables, figures and references visible. Ask yourself key questions, including: Does it have a relevant title and valuable research question? Are key papers referenced? What’s the author’s motivation for the study and the idea behind it? Are the data and tools suitable and correct? What’s new about it? Why does that matter? Are there other considerations? Find out more in our 12-step guide to critically reviewing a manuscript.

5) Take notes about the major, moderate and minor revisions that need to be made. You need to make sure you can put the paper down and come back to it with fresh eyes later on. Note-taking is essential for this.

6) Are there any methodological concerns or common research errors? Check out our guide for common research flaws to watch out for.

7) Create a list of things to check. For example, does the referenced study actually show what is claimed in the paper?

8) Assess language and grammar, and make sure it’s a right ‘fit’ for the journal. Does the paper flow? Does it have connectivity? Does it have clarity? Are the words and structure concise and effective?

9) Is it new research? Check previous publications of the authors and of other authors in the field to be sure that the results were not published before.

10) Summarise your notes for the editor. This can include overview, contribution, strengths & weaknesses, and acceptability. You can also include the manuscript’s contribution/context for the authors (really just to clarify whether you view it similarly, or not), then prioritise and collate the major revisions and minor/specific revisions into feedback. Try to compile this in a logical way, grouping similar things under a common heading where possible, and numbering them for ease of reference.

11) Give specific recommendations to the authors for changes. What do you want them to work on? in the manuscript that the authors can do.

12) Give your recommendation to the editor.

Job. Done.

We hope these 12 steps help get you on your way for your first peer review, or improving the structure of your current reviews. And remember, if you’d like to master the skills involved in peer review and get access to our Peer Review Template, sign up for our Publons Academy.

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Our expert panel of reviewers include: Ana Marie Florea (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf), James Cotter (University of Otago), and Robert Faff (University of Queensland). These reviewers are all recipients of the Global Peer Review Awards powered by Publons. They also and boast hundreds of pre-publication peer reviews for more than 100 different journals and sit on numerous editorial boards.

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