By Leonie Mueck (Senior Editor, Nature), Alicia Newton (Senior Editor, Nature Geoscience) and Sebastien Thuault (Senior Editor, Nature Neuroscience)
Peer review is at the heart of high-quality academic publishing, and every editor at Nature Research is grateful for the service of the reviewers who carefully scrutinise every research paper we publish. While SpotOn – taking place this Saturday 5 November in London – is exploring what peer review might look like in 2030, we recognise that many peer reviewers need advice and training now, too.
Here, we share a few tips for reviewers, novice and seasoned alike, that we collated with the help of other Nature Research editors.
What makes a helpful review?
It’s difficult to generalise what makes reviews particularly helpful, since each manuscript has different strengths and weaknesses. But the best reviews have two things in common:
- They substantiate every statement, be it about a weakness in the methodology or about the significance of the result for the scientific community, with detailed arguments.
- They maintain a constructive tone, even if there is a lot to criticise about the paper in question.
One core task of the reviewer is to make sure that the manuscript is technically sound and the claims sufficiently supported by the presented data. This includes checking whether the reporting is transparent so that other groups have enough information at hand to – in principle – repeat the experiments or analysis and ensure that the methodology is appropriate.
The editor will often recruit reviewers who are experts in a specific method employed in a paper. Hence it’s absolutely fine – even often intended – if a reviewer can only thoroughly assess the technical correctness of one aspect of the study. Reviewers can explicitly state the limits of their technical expertise in their report.
Reviewers’ second core task is to provide specific context on the significance of the results and interpretations reported in the paper. These comments should be well substantiated and justified so that the editor can assess whether the manuscript meets the editorial criteria of their journal.
Questions to consider are:
- How is the finding relevant to your community or your field more broadly?
- Is this going to be one of the most influential papers in the field this year?
- Does the paper represent a substantial technological achievement or an important community resource?
- Are there broader implications for public policy, such as climate regulations or public health?
When they ask you to review a paper, editors don’t expect you to say yes every time. If you’re busy and don’t think that you’ll do a good job in the allotted time, tell the editor. If possible, suggest a well-qualified colleague who could help. There may also be cases where it would be a conflict of interest for you to take on a review. Reasons to decline reviewing a paper can include: if you’re collaborating with one of the authors, if you have a paper that is in direct competition with this work or if you have financial interests that could be viewed as influencing your report. If you are unsure if something constitutes a conflict of interest, talk to the editor first.
How can I become a peer reviewer?
With an explosion in the amount of papers published each year, there are plenty of opportunities to become a peer reviewer.
You can contact the editors of a journal that matches your expertise and let them know you are willing to help, or find them at a conference.
As a trainee, you could ask your adviser if you can review a paper under their supervision. And more senior scientists are likewise encouraged to ask their students and postdocs to contribute to a review, after checking with the editor.
Finally, maintaining a clear online record of who you are and what you do is key. Ensure that your homepage is up to date and includes keywords that describe what you do, ideally in English as well as your institution’s primary language. Services like Google Scholar and ORCID also help you maintain an easily discoverable record of what you’ve published.
Is there training you wish you received early in your career? Interested in ways to make reviewing easier? You can join in the conversation at SpotOn 2016. You can still register here.
Resources that might help you include BioMed Central’s guidance for reviewers assessing papers in medical disciplines and Nature Research’s more general masterclass on peer reviewing.
You can leave comments below, or reach us on Twitter on @LeonieMueck or @g_ruber (Alicia Newton).
In the sciences, primary (or empirical) research articles:
- are original scientific reports of new research findings (Please note that an original scientific article does not include review articles, which summarize the research literature on a particular subject, or articles using meta-analyses, which analyze pre-published data.)
- usually include the following sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, References
- are usually peer-reviewed (examined by expert(s) in the field before publication). Please note that a peer-reviewed article is not the same as a review article, which summarizes the research literature on a particular subject
You may also choose to use some secondary sources (summaries or interpretations of original research) such as books (find these through the library catalog) or review articles (articles which organize and critically analyze the research of others on a topic). These secondary sources, particularly review articles, are often useful and easier-to-read summaries of research in an area. Additionally, you can use the listed references to find useful primary research articles.