Tackling your first review, getting over the hurdle.
As early career researchers, we eventually start publishing articles and showcasing our work to the world. With such exposure comes the occasional request to review other research articles within your area of expertise.
Being asked to review your first paper may be quite daunting, especially as, in my opinion, it’s not something we’re fully prepared for. There doesn’t seem to be any formal training being offered within universities, and most people feel that they can’t approach other researchers for help as they have to keep their review confidential.
This post aims to serve as a basic introduction to how to review your first research article, with several tips which I’ve accumulated over my time as a reviewer (granted, this is only 2 years).
Don’t be afraid to decline an invitation to review. Receiving your first invitation to review can be pretty exciting, as, contributing to the appraisal of others research is a testament to your knowledge in a particular research area. Some journals, however, may request that you review an article which is out of the scope of your knowledge or expertise. In these instances, if you feel like you would be unable to provide meaningful and technical comments on the manuscript, there’s no harm in declining to review. When invited to review, most journals will automatically create a reviewer account for you on their online system. Use this account to specify your research areas and interests, this should hopefully ensure that the specific journal does not send you manuscripts outside of your area of expertise in the future.
Maintain confidentiality. Okay, so we’ve maybe decided that we do have the expertise to review the requested manuscript. Upon accepting the invitation, you will normally receive a link to download the authors submission of their manuscript. Bear in mind that this is unpublished, novel research, the results of which are generally not known by those in the wider research community. Keep the content of the manuscript confidential - do not tell colleagues or peers that you’re reviewing a manuscript by a specific author, keep the title confidential, and do not discuss or disclose the results and findings.
Be honest, open, and constructive. Most peer review systems operate by anonymous peer review, however, a few global health journals now operate using an open peer review format where the authors are informed as to who the reviewers are and the reviewer comments are also published alongside the article. Some people hide behind the anonymity of the review process, and can sometimes give extremely critical and non-constructive comments. Be cognizant that the authors receiving your review have likely spent a lot of time on their research and on preparing the manuscript for review. It can be a little heartbreaking to receive extremely critical comments, especially ones which are non-constructive. If you do not agree with the way in which the authors have conducted their research, or how they’ve presented their findings, refer them to alternative methodologies or suggest ways in which they can improve the quality of their research.
Take your time. Journals generally have quite tight deadlines for reviewers - usually 2 weeks since accepting to review. This, combined with your commitments to your own research etc., can cause reviewers to stress and speed through a review. Take your time. Read the whole manuscript through once, without making any comments. Next, I generally tackle one section at a time, and have a break afterward. For example, I will re-read the introduction and make comments directly on the manuscript (normally through the ‘insert comment’ option in word) as I go. Once I’ve finished a section, I’ll collate all my comments into a word document, and have a break before moving on to the methods.
Sometimes, things which you may flag/raise or have questions about are answered further within the manuscript. Therefore, it’s good to re-read your comments after reading through the next section, and remove any issues or questions which have been addressed. If you know in advance that you will not have the time to adequately review the article, you can email the editor prior to accepting to review, asking for a longer window. Again, you can always decline to review if it is not a convenient time.
If you have any major concerns, raise these with the editor in your response. One of the biggest issues (in my opinion) with reviewing articles is that most reviewers don’t pay enough attention toward rigorously investigating the methodology used, and the statistics used to obtain the results given. If you feel like you don’t fully understand an element of the article, mention this to the editor so that they can possibly seek an additional reviewer who can provide the necessary critique of those elements. These no shame in stating that you don’t feel comfortable commenting on a certain section. For example, if an article included a large section of statistical analysis, and you’re not a statistician, mention this to the editor. There is generally a section in the response submission to add a message which will go to the editor only (not the authors).
If you have any other useful tips, please comment below!