So you’ve been asked to review your first scientific article - congratulations! Being asked to review an article indicates that you’ve made an impact through publishing and presenting your own research – whether you were invited directly, or asked by your PI to write a review on their behalf. But the skills that are required for reviewing a paper are different from those necessary when writing or reading an article, and they’re skills that are not often taught to young researchers.
During my last year of grad school, I was invited to review my first journal articles – an experience that was both exciting, and terrifying. Without any guidance, I wondered if my reviews would be up to par with what the journal editor and authors expected. Having now been a reviewer on multiple scientific articles, here are some tips that I have for first-time reviewers:
- Do your best to understand the article. Ask yourself what hypothesis the authors sought to test, and the evidence presented in their manuscript that supports or conflicts with this hypothesis. Compare the figures with the contentions made about them in the text. Finally, summarize the information you took away from reading through the manuscript. You can go through this exercise in your head, but it helps to write down your thoughts, as they will become an integral part of the review you eventually submit.
- Think about what the authors can add to better support their conclusions. The goal of the peer review process is to ensure that well-supported research makes its way into the published literature. As a reviewer, your role is to read the manuscript with a critical eye. If there are holes in the data that the authors use to support their conclusions, brainstorm additional experiments that could provide the necessary data. You can search for related articles in the literature to help frame your thinking, especially if the article you are reviewing is not specifically in your area of research.
- Write up your feedback thoughtfully. Start by summarizing your understanding of the article; this allows the authors to clarify anything that may have been misunderstood. Then, point by point, address each of your concerns with the manuscript. You should note what you believe the authors were trying to convey, as well as what you believe they should add to strengthen their point and why. The “why” can mention reasons based on the logic of the manuscript and/or existing literature that needs to be reconciled with the new results.
- Leave comments for the journal editor. These comments are not seen by the authors, thus allowing you to voice any concerns you have about the article that fall outside the scope of critiquing the content of the manuscript. Depending on the journal, you may be presented with prompts that ask you to evaluate criteria such as the potential impact of the article, the quality of the writing and figures, or how you would rank this manuscript compared to others in the field.
- Make a determination. Should the article be accepted, rejected, or does it require revisions? Most articles require either major or minor revisions before being accepted for publication. The difference between major and minor revisions is in both the scope of the changes that the reviewers request, as well as how much time the authors will have to do the requisite work (typically one month for minor revisions and three for major revisions). This information will typically go into the comments to the editor or in another area of the review separate from the comments to the authors – as it’s the journal editor who makes the final determination, you don’t want to indicate something to the authors that will be contradicted by the editor.
Finally, keep in mind that if the article goes through a series of revisions, you will be asked to review the updated manuscript once it gets resubmitted.
Getting asked to peer review an article for the first time can be overwhelming, but these tips will help you to contribute meaningful feedback to the authors and the journal, without the need to stress about the process. Good luck!
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Aliyah is a postdoc at the University of Virginia, where she studies cancer immunology. She is also an advocate for science communication. You can find her on Twitter @desabsurdites and on her blog at www.aliyahweinstein.com.