How to be an effective peer reviewer

by Kristin Hoffmann
Associate Librarian, University of Western Ontario

Peer reviewing is one of my favourite ways to participate in the librarian research community, because it combines two things that I find professionally rewarding and interesting: editing and mentoring.

In our academic writing and publishing system, peer review is a key part of the process, so it’s important that we do it well. However, there isn’t always a lot of guidance for those who are new reviewers. I’ve reviewed for some journals that have detailed reviewer guidelines, and for others that give reviewers a form to complete and not much else. I’ve reviewed book proposals that came with minimal direction, and I’ve reviewed conference proposals where the reviewer’s form was almost as long as the proposals themselves.

In all of those cases, reviewing was an individual activity. I’ve received almost no feedback on my reviewing, and I have had only occasional conversations with others about the process of reviewing.

In this post, I’ll give some suggestions for how to be an effective peer reviewer, in the hopes of helping novice reviewers and starting a conversation about reviewing:

  1. Think of peer reviewing as asynchronous, (usually) anonymous mentoring. A mentor is “an experienced and trusted advisor” (New Oxford American Dictionary), and a peer reviewer is an experienced and trusted advisor for someone else’s research. This is especially clear in open review processes, where the reviewer and author know each other’s identity, but it’s true of blind reviewing, too.
  1. Always find something positive to say about the piece you’re reviewing. Tell the author what worked well in their paper.
  1. Give specific, constructive suggestions. If you think the piece isn’t organized well, give the author ideas of how to re-structure it. If you think the analysis could be more robust, suggest additional aspects for the author to consider.
  1. When making substantive suggestions or pointing out flaws or concerns, do so in a way that shows you want the end result to be a better paper, and not that your goal is to assert your own superior research abilities. For example, “it would help if the Introduction included a stronger rationale for why this study is significant,” is better than, “this study is pointless and a monkey could have written the paper.”
  1. Remember that reviewers recommend, and editors decide. If you aren’t sure about your recommendation, tell the editor why you’re uncertain. They will look at your feedback along with that of the other reviewer(s) and make the best overall decision for the piece.
  1. Resist the urge to copy-edit. The editor needs you to comment on the submitted article as a whole, not the individual sentences. If the writing is hard to follow, or if the author consistently makes the same grammatical mistakes, then give a general comment about that. But remember that punctuation or sentence structure might change as a result of other, more substantial changes to the paper, so don’t put unnecessary work into copy-editing.

These are the main principles that I keep in mind as I’m writing reviews, but this isn’t an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear from Brain-Work readers: What other suggestions would you give to peer reviewers? What questions do you have about peer reviewing?

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.