Tips for academic reviewing and editing

One of the most rewarding activities in a researcher's career is peer reviewing scientific manuscripts to ensure that the authors are answering the questions that they set out to answer, using appropriate methods, and that conclusions are accurate. Eventually, reviewers are also invited to become academic editors.

For the review process to be meaningful, scientists must become aware of what journals may expect from them as both reviewers and academic editors. We recently invited the IAI community to gain insight into the world of academic review and editing with Jamie Males, Executive Editor of PLOS Climate, and Laura Francis, Editorial Research Associate. The event was moderated by Dra. Evelia Rivera Arriaga, Chair of the Science Policy Advisory Committee at the IAI and professor at the Instituto de Ecología, Pesquerías y Oceanografía del Golfo de México (EPOMEX), Universidad Autónoma de Campeche.

We share with you below the most important suggestions made during the event, which you can also view with Spanish subtitles in the link  

Accepting and declining invitations to review

When considering an invitation to review, weigh up whether you have the appropriate expertise, any competing interests (according to the journal’s policies), and enough available time to complete the review.

Some people aim to take on as many reviewer assignments as the number of papers they themselves submit, but it does come down to individual circumstances. Finding time to review can be challenging, but try to set aside some dedicated time to focus on reviewing/editing if you can. You should definitely avoid preparing a review while multi-tasking! If you’re invited to review a paper and aren’t able to accept, be upfront about the reason for declining the invitation. If you simply don’t have time, just explain this. The editor will understand. If at all possible, try to recommend an alternative reviewer with appropriate expertise, as this will really help the editor in their continued search!

Writing reviews

When reviewing a paper, always focus on the journal’s publication criteria. Be sure to spend sufficient time to engage with all aspects of the paper, and then write your review in a constructive tone and clear format. Mention the positive aspects of the paper as well as any concerns you have, and be honest about your own limitations—if there is a component of the paper that you feel less qualified to assess, draw this to the editor’s attention. If you’d like to see examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reviewer reports, you can visit PLOS’s Reviewer Center:

Consider co-reviewing

Consider the possibilities of co-reviewing with a member of your research group. Usually, a postdoc would be considered sufficiently qualified to conduct the review in their own right, whereas a PhD student would generally be expected to ‘co-review’ the manuscript with their supervisor. In either case, you should agree with the journal office who is going to be responsible for the review. Bear in mind that it is always best practice to clear the delegation of reviews or co-reviewing with the journal office, as it may be considered a breach of confidentiality if you provide access to the manuscript files to a colleague without specific permission to do so.

Accepting and declining invitations to handle a paper as editor

As for reviewers, editors should respond to invitations to handle papers only when they have considered whether they have the right expertise, any competing interests, and the time required to complete the assignment. Make sure you understand and are comfortable with your role as a handling editor for the journal in question; exact responsibilities and lines of communication vary between journals. If you accept the assignment, you’ll likely need to perform an initial editorial evaluation before peer review, so familiarise yourself with the journal’s criteria and guidelines for this process.

Selecting and inviting reviewers as an editor

As an editor, you should think carefully about reviewer selection. Try to ensure that you secure reviews from people with expertise that covers all aspects of the paper (subject area, methods, statistics etc.), and bear in mind the reviewers’ different backgrounds when comparing their reports. If you are struggling to reconcile conflicting reviewer recommendations, consider inviting an additional reviewer; seeing a fresh set of comments can often help you reach a decision.

Finding reviewers can be very challenging. Many researchers are finding themselves under increasing pressures and strains that make it harder for them to find time to review. As an editor, if you have exhausted the possibilities in your personal/professional network, try using online search tools such as PubMed, Web of Science and Google Scholar to identify other potential reviewers. You may also look at the reference list of the submission to help identify similar or related work. Do also bear in mind that early career researchers may be more available and willing to serve as a reviewer, as it helps them build up their experience of the peer review process. If you get completely stuck, contact the journal office for advice.

Editorial decisions

Editors must always frame their decisions with reference to the journal’s publication criteria. This should be clearly communicated in the decision letter, alongside any commentary on the reviewers’ reports that may be needed for the author to understand how the decision was reached and, when applicable, how best to revise their manuscript.