Helpful Tips for Becoming an Excellent Peer Reviewer
Ideally, peer reviews exist to improve scholarship. Peer reviewers act as a form of quality control, assuring that the articles published in a journal and the research behind them are in line with the scholarly standards not only of the journal concerned, but also of the wider scientific or academic community. When a peer review achieves this ideal, it contributes in very real and significant ways to the progress of knowledge in a field. Writing a thoughtful, critical and helpful peer review is no simple task, however, and often the more help the reviewer has to offer an author, the more difficult it can be to provide that assistance clearly and constructively.
First and foremost is to ensure that you have both the time and the knowledge to review a given article thoroughly and effectively. If you are in any doubt about finding enough time, it is better to decline (or not pursue) a reviewing opportunity. Being asked to do a peer review is a compliment, of course, particularly for those at the beginning of their careers, and it is always a informative pleasure to read new material in your subject area, but you will do neither the journal nor the author a favour by holding up publication or submitting a rushed or shabby review due to a lack of time. The quality of your review will also be compromised if you do not know the subject area well enough, so unless you are willing to do a great deal of research to prepare for the review, it is best to pass and let someone more qualified do the job. Journal editors will often send a copy of the abstract when soliciting a peer review, but if you do not receive an abstract, request one to ensure that you understand exactly what you will be reviewing.
Secondly, you should try to be as objective and specific as possible when offering critical analysis as a peer reviewer. Perhaps the author has produced very different findings than you did in a similar study and thus presents very different conclusions and implications. This may be unexpected and generate an emotional response that must be set aside to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the article objectively. Your focus should be the content, methodology, results, conclusions and overall structure of the paper, and it is most useful for both the editor and the author if your critical analysis highlights specific parts of the article for improvement and suggests how that improvement might be achieved. Try to put yourself in the author’s shoes as much as this is possible and write your comments in a supportive way that you would find constructive and useful were the article yours to revise.
Mean-spirited criticism that provides no practical solutions is unhelpful and far removed from the objectives of peer reviewing. Remembering that the improvement and publication of your own research is also dependent upon the reports of peer reviewers will help keep a compassionate element in your peer-reviewing activities without compromising your ability to express sincere opinions.