So you’ve been asked to review a manuscript? – Tips for the novice reviewer

Review a manuscript

Any scientist who is trying to publish relies upon the generosity of other scientists to peer-review their work. As any scientist will tell you, this has pros and cons – constructive advice can greatly improve a manuscript and fix flaws, but on the cons side every scientist has stories about the infamous “reviewer #3” who makes every scientist’s life hell at some time or other. As you start to build a name for yourself, you’ll be asked to review manuscripts, and you should! Reviewing manuscripts is an essential task for any academic and is an integral part of academic life – it is basically an obligation. But there is generally no class on “how to review manuscripts” despite it being a critical part of an academic’s job, and the reviewer has a huge responsibility: your review could potentially make, or seriously hamper, someone’s career. Moreover, doing a poor job reviewing could let bad, unscientific research get published, or even prevent important research getting accepted. To help navigate the minefield of reviewing, here are some tips and suggestions for the novice reviewer…

Always accept a request to review whenever you can. As an editor, I have had manuscripts where I have asked 10 to 15 people before I could even get two reviewers that would accept the task. A common response for declining is “I’m too busy”. OK, everyone is busy. But how would you like it if your submitted work didn’t get fairly reviewed because so many academics in your field were “too busy”. Try to make time to review. As noted above, reviewing should be considered an academic obligation and not a something to do if you have time. I like to live by what I call “Shiffman’s rule” (after SFS writer David Shiffman, who told me about his rule of thumb): try to review at least two manuscripts for every one that you submit.

However, don’t review a manuscript when it is completely outside of your field. Be honest – do you have expertise in this field? There are many manuscripts that you might receive that may be slightly outside of your particular expertise, e.g. perhaps a related species or different location. I am not talking about those sorts of manuscripts. It is very unlikely you will receive manuscript exactly in your area of research interest. But do not, for example, review a genetic analysis manuscript if you know absolutely nothing about genetics.

Read the particular journal’s guidelines. Does the paper fit into their area of interest. I have received a rejection on the ground that a paper was “contained too much policy” for a submission to a policy journal, likewise recently I received a rejection on the grounds that a paper “was simply the authors’ opinions” for a submission to the “opinions and comments” section of a journal. Make sure that the article is appropriate for the medium to which it is being submitted.

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Do not pass your review onto others to complete for you. I remember how horrified I was when first hearing about faculty who, when requested to review a paper, passed said papers onto their graduate students (or even undergraduates) to review. You have been requested to review a paper because of your own personal experience and expertise. If they wanted your student to review the paper they would have asked them.

Be ethical – if you have a conflict of interest, declare it to the editor. For example, you are asked to review a paper of one of your students, or someone you have a close relationship with, or an arch nemesis/competitor. If a paper proves that, in fact, one of your published hypotheses is in fact wrong, don’t reject it out of hand. Assess its veracity – if the paper shows that you are, indeed wrong, suck it up buttercup. This is what the scientific process is all about. Testing and re-testing hypotheses to get closer to the truth. Also, you are in a very privileged position, seeing someone’s work before it is officially published. Do not abuse this. There are some academics that are infamous for reviewing papers, and stealing the ideas therein whist stalling the original, and rushing to publication. This is becoming even easier with fast-to-publish online journals. With reviewing, comes great responsibility – keep the author’s work confidential.

Be forgiving for those authors for whom English is not their first language. There is a reason why most English language journals have native English-speaking authors. Many reviewers do not give scientists for whom English is a second (or third) language a fair chance. If the paper is obviously written by a non-native speaker, try to help them as much as possible. If editing the manuscript really would take too much work, then you are in your rights to request that the author get the help of a native English speaker to edit their paper and then re-submit. Do not reject a paper outright just because of the quality of English in the text. If the actual research is good, give the author a chance.

Make sure the papers have all the appropriate background literature, but don’t force authors to cite your papers. Increasingly papers are being submitted without a properly comprehensive literature review. Perhaps this is because there is now so much information available that citing it all is becoming infeasible. In older fields, much important information is not online and resides in these archaic devices known as “books”, and so a google search will not easily find these works. Perhaps the rush to publish or perish is meaning that researchers are not willing to put the time into fully researching the literature. As a result manuscripts are often woefully grounded in the appropriate background literature. I have received many papers over the years that have claimed to have been the first to discover something, and a quick trip to the library allowed me to find the paper(s) that actually did find that result first. However, do not abuse the power of the reviewer and force authors to cite your work. As an expert in the field that you are being asked to review a paper on, it is inevitable that your work is an appropriate citation and suggesting key papers of yours that the author has missed is totally acceptable. However, insisting the author effectively adds your entire publishing resume to their paper is inappropriate, unprofessional and unethical. There are some scientists who are infamous for doing this, but it’s easy to tell who they are as the 12 references you are requested to add are not really relevant to the topic of the paper, but strangely by the same author… (see also the dangers of excessive self-citation).

Don’t be a dick. This perhaps should be the number one rule. Always be professional in your reviews. Bear in mind that many of the papers you receive may be by newly minted MS and PhD students making their first forays into academic publishing. Be critical, but constructively so. Try to offer some words of support even if you do not believe their work is worthy of publishing. There are many young scientists who have not published their work and even left academia, because their encounters with reviewers have left them upset and even mentally scarred. Being an academic does not mean that you also must be an a$$hat. There are enough toxic academics as it is, without adding another.

Reviewing manuscripts is a major part of an academic’s workload, and being reviewed is a necessary part of an academic’s career. You can help to make this process as constructive and pain free as possible, whilst activing as a gatekeeper for quality research. Be the helpful reviewer #1 that everyone remembers fondly, not the obnoxious reviewer #3 that is the stuff of academic nightmare.


  1. David Stern · November 28, 2015

    The fair number of papers to review per year is your number of submissions * number of referees/number of coauthors. Now senior people should probably do more than this number of reviews and junior less. I’m a full prof and do about double this number, which works out at about 2 per month. But I get many more requests than this. So, I have to turn down a lot, citing that I am too busy. This is better than agreeing to review and never doing it, I think…

  2. Frank Berninger · November 29, 2015

    As an editor I am a bit surprised that Chris is putting much focus on the scope of the journal. I think that the scope of the journal (i.e. which papers have subjects that fit into the journal) is the task of the editor. In other words, I do not send papers that do not fit into the journals scope out for review. In some rare cases, I might specifically ask the reviewer to evaluate if a paper fits.

    • Chris Parsons · December 3, 2015

      Well it depends how hands on the editor is… I’ve received a few manuscripts that have been completely outside the scope of the journal from certain journals. But from my experience (both as associate editor on several journals and as an author) reviewers sometimes consider themselves to be the gatekeeper of the journal based on what they think the scope of the journal is, rather than the actual scope of the journal as stated in the guidelines. I’ve overruled a few reviewers over the years because, for example, they were rejecting a paper because it was “social science” for an interdisciplinary journal that specifically welcomed social science papers. I’ve had many papers where reviewers were very critical because the papers stated policy implications and made management recommendations – despite the journal guidelines specifically encouraging authors to do this.

  3. Raja Chowdhury · November 29, 2015

    Dear all, I guess I should start this blog somewhat philosophical manner. As a human being, we all have some flaws in our characters. Some of these negative characteristics affect other lives in negative way. And most of the human beings love to have power. Anyway, for smooth functioning of our society, we have laws. But, when we have taken the role of reviewer, the role ultimately asks for our honesty, our neutral mindset. However, most of the time it was not fulfilled. Therefore, ultimately review process sometime is not up to the mark. There are several eminent people who actually think that peer review has little to do to improve the quality of the paper. Sometime, the above comments are right, sometime are not. Generally, we publish to disseminate the knowledge we gain, and to strengthen/develop our expertise. And ultimately these publications help us to get funding and promotion. Now this whole money game that is funding and promotion someway depends on a review system that is totally depends on our ethics. As a human being, if some guys use the system from their own benefit what can we do? Now lets come to main point of the review, some good journals specially in my field (engineering) do not send the manuscript to the authors who are active on the research area of the manuscript. They try to send the same to the people who publish on that area 3 – 4 years back. The main reason behind it is to weed out the conflict of interest. From my understanding it has a drawback too, if someone is not active in that particular field he does not know what is the current state of the knowledge, he may not remember the every details of the subject. So I guess sending paper to the people who are active in that field is a good move.
    @Frank I know some of the journals of Elsevier have a online review form which asks for comments from reviewers whether the article is under the scope of the journal. And the journals I am talking about, their impact factors are within 3 – 5.

  4. Emerson A. Castilho-Martins · November 29, 2015

    Since I am not a native English speaker, I would like to thank Chris for raising this discussion. Surely this is a point always asked for us when we’re submitting a paper.

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