How to be a great reviewer: an editor's view


To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune …

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,

(Hamlet, William Shakespeare).

Like it or not, peer review of submitted manuscripts remains the system by which almost all scientific journals try to maintain quality control. Peer review has flaws, but the alternative, complete open access publishing, is untenable. Just look at the internet, with its massive proliferation of blogs and wacky websites, as an example of open access publishing with no quality control. Those seeking information are dependent on search engines, but how does one sift through the millions of ‘hits’ such engines generate?

One of the flaws of peer review is a bad review. As submitting authors, we have all received reviews that have completely missed the point of the paper or are severely tardy or discourteous, even vituperative. For me, receiving such a bad review recalls Hamlet's soliloquy: why did my manuscript receive such a delayed, oppressively wrong, scornful (‘contumely’ means scorn) review, leading to its disprized (rejected) status at the journal?

Thus, to avoid bad reviews we must try to encourage and identify good reviews and reviewers. Studies have attempted to identify the characteristics that make a good review and a good reviewer (1, 2). In two studies, younger age and time spent on the actual review were the factors associated with good reviews and reviewers (1, 2). The aim of this editorial is not to rehash the ‘nuts and bolts’ of a review process. In that respect, a seven-item reviewer quality instrument is available (3), and addressing these items will produce a good review. The five specific items in the manuscript that reviewers should consider are importance of the research question, originality of the paper, strengths and weaknesses of the method, presentation and interpretation of results; the two aspects of the review itself are constructiveness and substantiation of comments.

In addition to the above, the following is my personal perspective, as an editor, of how to be a good, even great, reviewer.

  • 1Be fair. This may seem so self-evident that it is silly to even mention, but I occasionally see unfair, overly harsh reviews of manuscripts that either go against dogma or go against the reviewer's previous work. Most scientists will agree that many of the quantum leaps forward in science occurred when dogma was challenged. Yet, publishing a study challenging accepted ‘knowledge’ is often difficult. As for results contrary to a reviewer's work, I guess it is just human nature that we tend to look more favourably on those who agree with us and unfavourably on those who disagree. But researchers (reviewers) must try to rise above our instincts in these situations.
  • 2Be fast. From an editor's viewpoint, there is nothing more frustrating than a reviewer who agrees to review a paper but then does not deliver, despite email or telephone reminders. Studies have suggested that spending about 3 h reviewing a manuscript produces optimum reviews, i.e. the quality of reviews improves over the time spent, up to a plateau at 3 h. Spending more time than this did not further improve quality. So if you cannot spare 3 h sometime in the next 2–3 weeks, please decline the invitation. But ‘yes’ must mean ‘yes’!
  • 3Be fearless. Liver International uses anonymous peer review, so reviewers usually are fearless with their comments, no matter how ‘big’ a name has written the manuscript. But more than that, I recommend that reviewers also should not hesitate to identify if any work is sufficiently novel or significant that it warrants an accompanying editorial. Moreover, they should also be fearless in volunteering to write such an editorial. The editors may not take your suggestion, but volunteering yourself will not be taken as a sign of egotism.
  • 4Be frugal. Liver International, unlike many journals, has no size/word limits for original research papers. Some authors consequently write in a loose, rambling or redundant style. We appreciate reviewers paying attention to unnecessary figures or tables, redundancies and text that is not concisely written.
  • 5Be friendly (to the editor). Be the editors' confidant. That box entitled ‘confidential comments to the editors’ should be used appropriately. Far too many reviewers simply cut-and-paste the entirety or sections of their ‘comments to authors’ into the ‘editors' box’ with little or no additional comments. That is not helpful. The brief comments that should go in this box are: (A) If recommending definitive rejection, the ‘fatal flaws’ that precluded acceptance or chance of revision, for example, ‘lack of novelty and major methodological problems’ or ‘my comments to authors, point numbers 1, 3 and 4’. (B) If recommending revisions, list the changes that must be done, in your view, to make this manuscript acceptable.
  • 6Be Russian. Ok, you need not move to Moscow. What I mean by this is the Russian proverb: ‘if you say “A”, you must say “B” ’ specifically, if you reviewed the first version of a manuscript, why hesitate to review the revision? You know this paper very well, and reviewing the revision often only takes a few minutes. I cannot understand those reviewers who take weeks to re-review a second or third version. I have reviewed hundreds of manuscripts (as a reviewer), and have never spent more than an hour on the revision. Please review the revision, and do not wait for 2 weeks to start it.
  • 7Do not be egocentric. There are several subplots here. (A) Do not feel miffed if the editors did not accept your recommendations for the paper. There are other factors to consider, including the other reviewer's opinion. (B) Do not feel miffed if the authors did not make every change you suggested. Try to assess their response coolly and objectively, without letting your ego interfere. (C) Do not try to improve your own (or your friends') citation counts by recommending that the authors cite one or more of your papers. However, if there is a glaring omission in the reference list or discussion and your reference is important to the theme, it is reasonable to suggest an addition or two. But more often when the reviewer asks the authors to cite the reviewer's work, it is a matter of abusing the privilege of reviewing to stroke one's own ego.

Paying attention to these seven points as you go through the aforementioned items of a good review will produce an excellent review. Excellent reviews will immensely help editors, authors, readers and, ultimately, the state of knowledge in our field.