Don’t be ‘Reviewer 2’

472 265 Office of Research Trainees
person proofreading paper with pen
Writing a literature review will appear less intimidating if you clearly define your topic, audience, type of review you’re writing, and literature search strategy at the outset.

NOTE: This article appeared in the April 2020 Edition of the ORT Times.

Don’t be ‘Reviewer 2’

How to effectively peer review manuscripts.

By: Tyler Saumur, ORT Times Science Writer

As scientists, we rely on a peer review process to ensure published results are credible and held to a high standard. While we all have that story of the dreadful reviewer 2 who provides nonconstructive feedback and uses negative language throughout their review, it begs the question: what formal training do we receive (if any) to effectively and appropriately review other people’s work?

For most trainees, peer reviewing is a skill acquired through experience. If you are unfamiliar with this process, try asking your supervisor to review a manuscript alongside you. Consider reviewing the paper independently and then going through each other’s feedback together. Finding the ideal approach to providing the feedback that is “just right” can be difficult, but is crucial for the advancement of science.

Reviewing a paper will involve at least two readthroughs. The first will give you an initial impression of the paper and the quality of the work. Consider questions(link is external) like:

  • What is the main purpose of this research?
  • Are the conclusions substantiated by evidence?
  • How does this work compare with the current literature?

Once you have done an initial readthrough, consider writing a paragraph that summarizes your understanding of the work, including the key messages and successful points of the article. At this point, you should be able to identify whether the article has potential for publication or has fatal flaws. If the latter, reject the article and describe its shortcomings and strengths in detail to assist the authors in future submissions.

If the paper has potential, the subsequent examinations “…are critical as they focus your mind on the issues and help frame the problem clearly,” states (link is external) Dr. Vineet Chopra, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan. During the second read, consider the intricate details of the article. Although you may come across other potential major issues, you will most likely only identify minor concerns such as ambiguous definitions or citations and small structural or grammatical problems.

When writing your review, consider a format (link is external) that consists of your summary paragraph, major issues, minor issues, and small grammatical and structural suggestions. Do not forget to assess the tables, figures and supplementary material as well. Review others’ work the way you would like your work to be reviewed: be thorough and provide constructive feedback.

We all rely on our peers to advance science, so be critical with your review and be courteous. The publisher Wiley offers a helpful guide (link is external) that can further assist you as a reviewer in assessing each section of a manuscript.