Reviewing and assessing manuscripts are vital skills for research scientists. And yet, few scientists ever receive peer-review training. Here, we summarise the key steps involved in producing an effective review to guide first-time reviewers and more experienced reviewers, alike.
When receiving a review request from one of our journal editors, you should first ask yourself if you are (1) qualified to review the manuscript, (2) able to provide an unbiased review and (3) able to deliver the review on time. The general process is illustrated in Fig. 1.
To help you decide we will always send you the title and the article abstract.
In some cases, you might only be able to provide a considered scientific evaluation for part of the manuscript that falls within your area of expertise. This is usually OK, but it is good practice to inform the editor and to state which aspects of the paper you are reviewing when returning your review.
You should also make sure that there is no actual or perceived competing interest that might prevent you from offering an unbiased review. For example, where you are from the same institution as one or more of the authors, where a personal relationship exists that might bias the review or where you have collaborated and co-published in recent years.
You should reject the offer to review a manuscript when the paper is totally outside of your field of expertise or experience, and where there is an actual or perceived conflict of interest. If possible, suggest alternative reviewers so the review process can move on.
If you would otherwise like to accept the manuscript but need more time to complete the review than the deadline allows, then you should inform the editor. It is usually possible to agree on an alternative deadline. Otherwise, reject the offer to review and suggest alternative reviewers if possible.
Most journals expect to receive a written summary of your review and an edited or commented version of the manuscript. GEUS Bulletin has tried to simplify the process by providing reviewers with a set of questions to answer as part of the review. Most of our reviewers simply answer these questions and return a commented version of the manuscript. Some include additional comments for the authors and the editor to provide further context to their review. We recommend downloading and reading the review questions before looking at the manuscript.
For a thorough and efficient review, we recommend following the three-stage review workflow described by Mathew Stiller-Reeve in Nature, 2018. Download a pdf guide of this process. These stages are summarised in fig. 2.
Following this workflow will help you answer our review questions and formulate any additional comments you wish to submit for the authors or editor.
First reading: Initial impressions
In the first reading, you should aim to get an overview of the article, its rationale, aims and objectives, and to decide whether the article is publishable in principle. Make notes and write a brief summary of these key items.
At this stage, you may be made aware of a competing interest that you had not spotted before. Or you might spot a major flaw, such as a totally flawed methodology, a missing section or an unreadable manuscript. In such cases, describe the issue in writing and submit it to the editor straight away.
After reading the article you may feel that some parts of it are outside your immediate area of expertise. If you have any doubts at this stage, you may like to contact the editor, otherwise continue to the second reading and be sure to describe the parts of the manuscript that you are reviewing when you return your review.
Our editors should never send you a paper outside the journal’s remit, and we aim to address any fundamental readability issues before sending the manuscript out for review. But if you feel that either of these conditions have not been met you should inform the editor as soon as possible.
Second reading: Scientific details
This time focus on the scientific aspects of the manuscript – the methods used, analyses and the conclusions. Consider the key questions described in the workflow by Stiller-Reeve and the GEUS Bulletin review questions (pdf). Take notes as you go and record any major and minor issues that you identify in the manuscript. Major issues would require substantially more time and effort to address than minor issues.
Third reading: Organisation and writing
The third reading should focus on the overall structure of the article and readability.
Does the structure or language obscure the otherwise interesting science presented? Try to point out instances of poor structure, where paragraphs do not flow together, or where sentences are so long and full of multiple clauses that the meaning is lost. Point out any unnecessary use of acronyms and heavy or vague language that again, obscure the authors’ intended meaning. It isn't the reviewer’s job to copy-edit the manuscript but pointing out areas where the language or structure can be improved will speed up the entire editorial process.
You should now have some notes and perhaps an edited or commented manuscript from which to write your review. Depending on the level of revisions required you may find that all of your comments can be covered by answering the questions in our review form. But for manuscripts that require more substantial edits, it is often a good idea to formulate your notes into a full written summary. This summary can be submitted in the Comments to the Author or Comments to the Editor fields in the review form or uploaded as a seperate file when submitting your review.
Producing such a summary is good training for reviewers, as many journals rely on your summary alone and do not provide a list of questions to guide your feedback. We recommend the following structure:
A few sentences to summarise your (the reviewer's) understanding of the overall rationale for the study, the research question, and the aims and objectives. Followed by a brief summary of how well the article has achieved these aims and addressed the research question posed.
A statement as to whether the study is unpublishable (with justification) or publishable in principle (with or without revisions, which are listed next.
A description of the major flaws and suggested remedies.
A description of the minor flaws and suggested remedies.
Any other minor items that the authors might consider.
In general, always try to separate your comments into major and minor issues, provide specific examples of where these issues occur in the text and a suggested remedy for each.
Use the GEUS Bulletin online submission system to submit your review. You do not need to register or login to the system. Simply follow the link provided by email when you accepted to review the manuscript. In the online system, you can provide answers to our review questions, and upload any additional review files, such as a commented manuscript or include an additional written summary.
Unless otherwise indicated, the answers you provide in the submission process will be made available to the authors and may be shared with another reviewer.
In the online system, you can include additional Comments to the Authors and Comments to the Editor. Any comments for the editor are treated confidentially and will not be shared with the authors or another reviewer.
During the submission process you will be asked to make a recommendation to the editor, by selecting one of the following options:
1. Accept submission: Choosing this option means that the manuscript can be published immediately, and no further revisions are required. This option is rarely applicable to manuscripts in the first round of reviews, and usually only applicable when reviewing a manuscript for the second time.
2. Revisions required: Choose this option when the manuscript is publishable in principle but requires minor revision. E.g. simple edits to text or figures. This option means that the manuscript is unlikely to require another round of reviews.
3. Resubmit for review: Choose this option when the manuscript is publishable in principle but requires substantial revision. E.g. where the manuscript is flawed, perhaps severely flawed, but fixable. It may require rephrasing throughout, substantial reorganisation, additional figures/tables, a more detailed methodology or new analyses. The manuscript may or may not require another round of reviews.
4. Decline submission: Choose this option when the manuscript is fatally flawed and should not be published. E.g. the conclusions are not supported by the data presented or the submission suffers from methodological problems, which cannot be easily fixed with rewrites. Note: We usually ask authors to resubmit revisions in 30 days. If the manuscript is severely flawed but you anticipate that the authors will need more than 30 days to complete the revisions, you might also choose to decline the submission and explain this to the editor. Such a manuscript would require a second round of reviews if resubmitted.
The online system also contains two other options: (1) Resubmit elsewhere (i.e. the manuscript is outside the scope of the journal) and (2) See comments (i.e. if you feel unable to make any reccomendation). These two options are rarely used.
After submitting your review, you will receive an email notification to acknowledge receipt. Please contact the editor if you do not receive such a notification. You will be notified if the article is published.
GEUS Bulletin appreciates the time and energy invested by scientists into reviewing manuscripts for scholarly publication. Without your contribution, we would simply not be able to serve the scientific community in the way that we currently do. If there is anything that you think we could do to make the process easier for reviewers, then please let us know by emailing email@example.com.
When reviewing a manuscript be sure to abide by the Golden Rule of Reviewing: Review for others as you would have others review for you (McPeek et al. 2008). Try to respond to review requests and complete the review in good time. Consider the following as you go:
Be rigorous but fair. Don’t review a manuscript when you are in a bad mood. A review should always be rigorous and thorough, but never rude. Avoid using language that might cause offense.
Set aside enough time. Don’t rush the review, but don’t dwell on it either. Try to find a quiet spot with few distractions to focus your mind and get the task done. We appreciate this is often easier said than done.
Look after your own mental wellbeing. If you honestly don’t have time to review a manuscript, then reject the request. If you wish, you can let the editor know if you wish to be considered as a reviewer in the future. If you accepted to review a manuscript but no longer think you can complete the review on time, then let the editor know as soon as possible. The scholarly publishing industry and the scientific community rely on scientists volunteering their time to review manuscripts. But this should not be at the cost of an individual’s mental health. Know what you do and do not have time for and follow your gut instinct. It is OK to say no.
Know your own biases. As a reviewer, you should always ask yourself whether conscious or unconscious bias may be present in your review and adjust your comments if necessary. For example, women are consistently under-represented in academic publishing as first and last authors, reviewers and editors, and conscious or unconscious gender bias is a documented problem in academia (1, 2 and 3). It is the responsibility of every publisher, editor and reviewer to be aware of potential bias for or against a scientific article based on the author’s gender, perceived ethnicity, nationality or institutional affiliation.
GEUS Bulletin is a peer-reviewed, open access journal published by the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS). We publish geoscience research papers, monographs and map descriptions for Denmark, Greenland and the Arctic region. GEUS Bulletin believes that open science benefits scientists, industry and society. We do not charge publication fees and all our articles can be freely downloaded online.