‘Be a true “peer”, who is helpful but firm’
We all know the usual reasoning: we peer review to be good citizens, to support dialogue in our fields, and so on. We want high-quality peer reviews ourselves, so we need to provide them for others. But in the rapidly changing climate surrounding research publication, new questions are arising: why provide this free labour, particularly for commercially run entities? Given that reviewing typically doesn’t “count” for anything within our institutions, should we cut back on our commitments? And which requests should we accept?
As the editor-in-chief for a major journal in my field, I depend utterly on excellent referees. From this point of view, what makes a good referee is very clear: timely response to the original invitation, continued contact as the reviewing progresses (especially if any problems arise) and a detailed report that provides truly constructive criticism. The last is perhaps the trickiest point.
Constructive criticism aims to make the proposed paper stronger and more compelling, not to try to get the authors to write a different paper altogether. Proofreading is not the point of refereeing: this should be left to authors, editors and production staff. But it is essential to assess whether the manuscript is participating in ongoing conversations in the field: an extremely high-quality article that is read by no one is not a benefit to anyone, including the authors.
Papers should also be reviewed to make certain that they are adequately and accurately citing previous relevant literature, particularly by underrepresented groups, such as women; empirical evidence shows that their publications tend to be neglected. In many senses, there is nothing truly original left to be written. The best papers position their claims and arguments against the existing literature and enter a dialogue with it. This should be a central consideration for referees, who should point the authors specifically towards the literature – by, for instance, providing examples of relevant citations.
Reviewing well entails not accepting too many requests. Academics use different strategies, such as only doing a certain number per year, or only accepting a new request after they have completed the last. It is also essential to be in the right frame of mind when you sit down to review; if done at the last minute, at the end of a long day, what you produce is likely to be unhelpful.
How you present your review is vital: a report that is extremely blunt or aggressive to the point of rudeness will probably not be deemed usable by many editors, so producing such a report wastes your time and theirs. Avoid being (the perhaps apocryphal) reviewer #2 and instead be a true “peer”, who is helpful but firm. Consider how you would feel if you were to receive the report that you have written and strive to be accurate without being downright mean. Provide the authors with a way forward without doing the work for them: this might mean trying a different journal, reconceptualising the paper’s framing, or simply making some minor clarifications.
Part of your job as a referee is to give evidence-based advice to the editor about how to proceed, as in most cases referees’ reports are advisory. Do consider whether your judgement in this regard may be compromised by a conflict of interest, and if in doubt, consult the editor before proceeding. While reviewing papers by authors well known to you is generally frowned upon, it may be important to do so in smaller subfields if you are one of the few people with the relevant expertise and you believe that you can remain impartial.
Indeed, academics should focus their reviewing efforts on papers in their own subfields, where their expertise is strongest and where they benefit most from the window it gives on to emerging issues. Try not to accept review requests that are lateral to your expertise unless there are clearly extenuating circumstances.
Reviewing also allows you to see models of best practice – and of poor practice – which can improve your own publication habits. To be forced to critique someone else’s work enables you to become more reflective about your own research, particularly in terms of framing, argumentation and evidence.
Reviewing should be regarded not as a chance to lecture others but as an opportunity to learn, and to use your expertise to contribute to the growth of your field. Viewed in this way, it also is a much more pleasant and productive experience for everyone involved.