Peer review pearls: maximizing your contributions

The peer review process is essential to assuring the quality of published manuscripts. BMJ Quality & Safety highly values the work of reviewers, who assist in decisions about which of the many submissions (over 2000 a year) should be selected for publication. The editors also devote considerable time and effort to making sure that the basis for decisions are explained clearly and respectfully.  Editors select peer reviewers for their expertise, often putting together a small group of 2-3 reviewers, each of whom have complementary strengths. This selection is critical, as it helps to get a rounded and fair picture of a manuscript. Particular reviewers may be especially skilled in, say, quantitative or qualitative methods or content expertise for a particular paper. However, all reviewers are valued for their more general views on readability, relevance, and contribution to the field.

Sometimes people ask for advice on how to do reviews well.  Rather than reproduce formal guidance, we asked experienced author and reviewer Dr. Vineet Chopra of University of Michigan (@vineet_chopra) to offer his own personal top 10 tips. Here they are, based on his very popular thread of tweets:

      1. Once you’ve accepted the invitation to review, set aside enough time – somewhere between 1-3 hours might be usual – to complete your review. Read the paper in its entirety (including tables/appendices) 2-3 times before beginning to write your review.
      2. Editors are trying to make good decisions. They appreciate well-organized review reports that make clear the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript and provide helpful direction about whether to request revisions or stop progressing the paper further.
      3. As well as writing a report for the editors, keep in mind that you’re also writing a report for the authors – they will see your comments, too. So, kindness and respect matter when formulating your critique, as many days and hours were spent on the project and the manuscript in your hands. It is helpful, then, to see the report as a developmental opportunity for authors, where your role is to help the paper and them improve. Frame your feedback, therefore, as you would any guidance to a mentee. Think about how you would like to receive feedback yourself. Aim to help, not harm.
      4. Now, get to work on writing your report. Start by concisely summarizing the work in 1-2 paragraphs to focus your understanding of the work (s/o to @jeffreylinder for this addition!)
      5. If they exist, identify 2-3 MAJOR concerns that might threaten the conclusions of the authors. Major concerns should focus on significant design flaws, measurement problems, residual confounding, inadequate adjustment, etc. – things that clearly affect the overall impact of the paper. Now, offer some potential solutions for these major concerns if you can. Sometimes, the flaws are fatal for this particular version of the manuscript and cannot be rescued. But even if they are fatal, offering solutions about redesign can be very important for the growth of the author and may help them craft a new manuscript.
      6. Similarly, list at least 2-3 MINOR concerns. These might focus on descriptions that need more detail or minor flaws in study design, execution, or writing. You’re not expected to do a line-by-line identification of typographical errors, but you can comment generally on issues of syntax, grammar, layout, style, etc. when commenting on minor concerns. As before, share some potential fixes for these concerns if you can, especially as they should be addressable in a revision if they are truly minor in nature.
      7. Now, pay close attention to the Tables/Figures. Do they make sense when viewed alone? Is their formatting appropriate? Are they redundant, or do they add to the text/story being told? Are important ones possibly omitted? Does the text call out to the tables/figures at appropriate places? Are there ways the figure can be improved? Are they legible and clear? These are important aspects as tables and figures are often what get shown at major academic meetings.
      8. Keep your review concise. Hopefully, sharing solutions to the major methodologic and minor concerns you identified will make the original manuscript better and you a better scientist and writer.
      9. Remember to close with words of praise. Writing is difficult, and you’ll want to recognize and reward the effort of the authors. It is also a privilege to serve as a reviewer of someone else’s work – so, thanking the authors for the opportunity is kind and right in many ways.
      10. After submitting your review, take a moment to reflect on your contributions to the world of science and smile!

    Dr. Joel Boggan, Prof. Mary Dixon-Woods, & Dr. Vineet Chopra

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