When and How to Review a Paper. Part I

Have you been asked to review a manuscript but are unsure of how this works? Reviewing manuscripts is a great way to hone your critical skills, improve your confidence when submitting your own papers (realising submissions of other scientists aren’t perfect either!) and gain a reputation as an expert in the field. It’s nice to hear that “The best referees are postdocs” by a Nature editor, “they are at the top of their game, well versed in the literature and politically naive enough to tell the truth.”

To help you get started in Part I of this blog I’ve compiled the most important points to consider when asked to review a paper. Part II then covers how to do an excellent review that satisfies the scientific process while also making a good impression with the editor.

Part I

When not to accept a review request:

1. You don’t have the expertise. A weak review does nothing for peer reviewing or your reputation, so if you are not at all familiar with the methodology and / or lack the knowledge of the literature, it will show in your review. Reply to the editor that this manuscript is not within your area of expertise and, if you can, suggest someone who would be better suited (include contact details if you have them). Also, write a couple of sentences describing your expertise so the editor can consider you for another manuscript.

If you realise that the manuscript is outside your expertise after you’ve accepted the review, contact the editor and proceed as above. It is a good idea to have a quick read of the paper as soon as you have agreed to review it, in order to see that you have made the right decision. You don’t want to find out weeks later shortly before the review is due that you can’t actually do it!

When to discuss with the editor before accepting:

2. You have a conflict of interest. You have a potential conflict of interest if you have recently worked with the author or are a direct competitor. Or the editor may not have noticed that you are mentioned in the acknowledgements as a contributor. I have even heard of cases where authors got their own papers sent to review, by mistake! Stop reading the paper and contact the editor, describing your conflict of interest to find out how to proceed. It’s better to ask the question than to assume all will be OK; you don’t want to spend all that time reviewing just to find your review cannot be considered in the end. Also, let the editor know if you have reviewed the same manuscript for a different journal before, which may bias your view.

3. You don’t have time. A good review takes time, especially if it’s a difficult paper with lots of problems (and you won’t know how difficult it is until you have accepted the review). If you have too much on your plate up to the review deadline (how much time you are given depends on the journal) you can ask for an extension when you accept. Suggest a new deadline that you are confident you can meet. It’s then up to the editor to agree or give the manuscript to someone else. Don’t accept and then ask for an extension at the last minute, which certainly doesn’t impress!

Your colleague hands you a paper and asks you to review it

4. This should not happen as it is the editor who decides who reviews a manuscript and just passing on a manuscript without informing the editor is a breach of confidentiality. If someone suggests this to you, ask them to get back to the editor and name you as a suitable and willing alternative reviewer. It is then up to the editor to agree or not.

What you can do is ask your supervisor or mentor if you could gain experience in the peer review process by helping with one of their reviews. Your supervisor / mentor then needs to contact the editor to gain permission to involve you in the process. This is an excellent way to ‘learn the ropes’ from an experienced reviewer and, as suggested here, it also seems to be quite a common way for editors to add new reviewers to their database.

Can you talk to other people about the manuscript you review?

5. When you review a manuscript, you are dealing with information that is given to you in confidence as it is not in the public domain yet. Upholding that confidentiality is your responsibility and discussing or showing the manuscript around in the lab clearly breaches confidentiality without prior approval from the editor. So if you need or would like input from a colleague, contact the editor to find out how to proceed.


Making the Right Moves, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) has interesting case studies on its website dealing with confidentiality, peer-review and many other issues.

Can you think of other issues to consider before accepting a request to review a manuscript? How did you or do you learn to review papers? Please leave a comment below.

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