Peer review is central to academic publishing, yet many academics receive no training on how to do it. In this post, Anna, our Editorial Director, offers some guidance.
The academics who peer review our manuscripts play an absolutely crucial role in the publishing process, and we are very grateful to everyone who agrees to contribute in this way. We’ve put together the following guidelines for inexperienced peer reviewers, and to answer some frequently asked questions about what we want (and don’t want!) from a peer review.
Publons offer useful training for anyone who wants to learn more.
Here are a few quick pointers for starters:
- Be realistic about whether you’re going to be able to complete the review to the agreed deadline, and if things change, let us know as early as you can.
- If you only feel qualified to comment on certain aspects of the manuscript, or feel we should get a second opinion on something (be it statistics or a particular geographical context) let us know.
- Be as polite and constructive in your comments as possible. Even experienced authors find combative rejections difficult to handle.
- If you are addressing certain parts of your review to the editors and publisher only, make this clear.
- We’re happy for you to review a manuscript if you know the author(s), are working on a competing title for another publisher, agree/don’t agree with the author…
What are you asking me to do?
- Offer a brief summary of the argument of the manuscript and its intended audience. You can be very brief here, but it can be a very helpful indication that the author(s) are not communicating their intentions well if your understanding of the manuscript differs from theirs.
- Look at the manuscript as whole. If it is a monograph, does the order and structure of the chapters make sense, is there enough/too much literature and methodological discussion? Does it look like a PhD thesis? If it is an edited collection, do the introduction and conclusion do a good job of tying the collection together, do the chapters interrelate and all speak to the main themes of the collection? Are they grouped together sensibly? Does the collection open and close with strong chapters?
- Engage with each chapter: particularly important in an edited collection, but for all manuscripts this is where we would expect the ‘meat’ of your report to be. In addition to considering issues such as methodology, theoretical argumentation, etc. you may want to answer these questions: are the authors making a strong argument? Are there clarifications that would make life easier for a reader? Are the authors assuming too much or too little knowledge on the part of the reader? Are there revisions the authors could make to make their work more accessible to researchers in other disciplines?
- Suggest revisions!
- Go back and look at the title – does it reflect the contents of the manuscript? Having read the manuscript, does the introduction need rethinking?
What should I not do?
- Spend a lot of time marking up mistakes in grammar/expression. If this is a real problem, make a note of it your general comments, point to a few specific examples, and then try and ignore them.
- Worry about whether the manuscript is presented in accordance with our style guidelines (or presentation issues in general) – we will sort this out.
- Write a lengthy summary of the manuscript.
- Write a back cover blurb, or marketing copy.
- If the manuscript is really terrible, and it happens, be as polite and constructive as you can. If you want to include a brief set of comments for the series editors and publishers only that’s fine, but in the comments for the authors try to restrain yourself and if you can find any constructive suggestions please include them.
The question we get asked most is also the hardest to answer! Occasionally we will ask you to review a manuscript so brilliant and polished that you need only give us a few examples of its accomplishments and suggest a few minor clarifications – in this case a side of A4 is probably more than enough. Very occasionally we may send out a manuscript so appalling that it is completely, irretrievably terrible, and as peer reviewer all you can do is politely suggest we reject it and offer a few examples of its major flaws – again in this case a side of A4 will do. However in most cases, if you are going to thoroughly engage with the text and offer concrete, achievable suggestions for revision then 4-5 sides for the whole collection (1500-2500 words) is probably about right. For a lengthy edited collection where you need to respond in detail to the methodology etc. in each chapter, you may need to write more than this.