Editorial: Writing a helpful journal review: application of the 6 C's
The peer review system remains a cornerstone of the academic publication system. It is one whereby submitted manuscripts are sent by a journal to experts in the field who cast judgements over the manuscript regarding suitability for publication. The independent scrutiny of published work allows readers to have confidence in the veracity and argument of the paper, helps journals maintain and increase their credibility and rigour, and it goes some way to ensuring that only good-quality scholarly work is disseminated. As a peer reviewer in this journal, reviewers are charged with providing analysis to the JCN editors regarding the quality of submissions, their merit and their perceived contribution to the field (Journal of Clinical Nursing 2014).
Over the years, we have received reviews on our own submitted papers, and within our editorial roles, we have read the reviews of many. What we know from these experiences is that there are good reviews and bad. The not insignificant body of literature on ‘how to write a good review’ indicates that we are not alone in our observations. For example, Annesley (2013) proposed the six ‘Be's’ to reviewing, such as: be organised, be considerate and be specific etcetera. From a slightly different angle, Vintzileos and Ananth (2010) describe the art of writing a review. But it is still very easy to get it wrong. Unhelpful reviews do not help the profession as a whole, the journal or the individual (both writer and reviewer). Yet it is remarkably easy to write a helpful review, and here, we share some essential dos and don'ts of the process. However, rather than adopt a checklist approach, we focus on the principles of an effective review by taking the NHS 6 C's of compassionate care and applying these to the context of journal reviewing.
There are numerous reasons why you should say ‘yes’ when asked to serve as a peer reviewer (Annesley 2012). Although individuals will rarely be paid for reviewing (some will argue that they should), it remains a hallowed reciprocal gesture within the academic field. It is a service we give freely, but from which we also benefit significantly. Everyone who publishes (or wants to) should review. Everyone who may never publish but wants to enhance the quality of research and theory should review. Everyone who wants to be a little ahead of the curve in their field, seeing new research before it reaches the public domain, should review. So surely, given the reciprocal nature, we all buy into the process? No. There are people who will be too busy to review (‘I don't have time to review your paper… because I am too busy writing my own – that I will of course need someone to review’), too pompous (‘I don't need to review at this point of my illustrious career’) or too reticent (‘this is something that I would like to do, but surely I'm not important/clever enough?’). There may be a very occasional excuse for the first. Sometimes, it is unavoidable to say no, the timing is just wrong or there is too much going on; but either offer to do this over a longer period, ask someone else suitable and then offer that name, or promise to do the next one (and keep to the promise). But none of us are too important or too unimportant to review. Willingness to do a review within the required timeframe is an important prerequisite (Vintzileos & Ananth 2010), and we advocate one simple commitment principle: say yes more often than you say no.
We suggested earlier that no one is too unimportant to review, but there is a difference between importance and competence. For those new to reviewing, it can be a daunting process, but there is invariably someone at hand to offer guidance and support, not least the editorial team. They want a good review, so it is in their interest to be helpful and supportive! Vintzileos and Ananth (2010) suggest that in the same way as those with a camera do not instantly produce professional photographs, not everyone offered the opportunity to review immediately becomes a competent reviewer. Pathways to successful reviewing rest on experience and mastering the art. But for us all, the first stage to reviewing a paper is for the potential reviewer to ensure that they are competent to provide a constructive review.
It might seem contradictory, but sometimes we need to have the courage to say ‘no’. But in the light of earlier discussion, this ought to be infrequent and based on genuine, prohibitive reasons, be they time, competence etcetera. Once committed to the review, have the courage of your convictions. If the quality of the paper means you think it could never be salvaged, then it is better to reject than try to rewrite the paper for the authors or even if you think the author could revise the paper, but it still would not add much to the field, then say so and reject the paper, perhaps suggesting where it might be submitted instead. Vintzileos and Ananth (2010) suggest that reviewers need to be willing to consult with other trusted experts if necessary. This can be a bit tricky given the confidential nature of the review process, but reviewers should not hesitate to contact the editor if they have any questions or concerns about a particular manuscript, or about the review process more generally.
Communicating the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript to the authors and editors is an important part of the review process. If you think the paper needs some revisions, then be clear about exactly what is required. Revisions that suggest a whole new approach and theory and rewrite are not minor and should be spelled out clearly. Point out exactly what needs to be done to bring the paper to publishable standard. However, remember it is not your paper and there is no need to suggest how it would have looked if you had written it – you may be surprised how often that happens! Good editors would not let this happen, but it often does. If the paper is so terrible that it could never be published, do not waste too much time on it. It should never have been submitted, and you are not there to help out on a line-by-line basis. The submitting author ought to have had someone look at it before it was sent to the journal. And whilst some reviewers send in very detailed lists of typographical errors (which are always very helpful to the author), there is no need to do the author's job! Annesley (2013) observed that authors get frustrated with broad-stroke criticisms within a review without recommendations for specific action, arguing that the most effective reviews help authors understand how to address the identified deficiencies. Do not write a review that is harshly critical without explaining why the point made is erroneous and how it could be improved. Also – have some compassion – this is someone's precious work under scrutiny, and negative reviews can be painful.
Constructive criticism is at the heart of writing a good review (Vintzileos & Ananth 2010, Kurihara & Colleti 2013, Journal of Clinical Nursing 2014). Annesley (2013) questions whether we would like the adjectives ‘egregious, incomprehensible, meritless and ill-conceived’ to be used to describe our work. Well probably not! But we have come quite close: ‘silly, silly, silly’ written in the margins in red ink of a paper JT submitted to a journal in around 1997 was not the most constructive feedback ever received. A thoughtful review, even if it is an outright rejection, can really help authors develop their ideas and their writing further. A crass review, even if the paper may seemingly deserve it, can leave an author depressed, disheartened and unlikely to resubmit ever again. One has to be enormously resilient in academia, with hours and hours spent on grant proposals and manuscripts for publication, with rejections more common than acceptances. A constructive rejection or moderation can help enormously and, more often than not, enhances the quality of a paper considerably.
It is noteworthy that changing practices with publishing might influence the extent to which reviewers are quite so direct, blunt or outright rude. Traditionally, the review process has been a double-blind process: the reviewers do not know who the paper is from; the writer does not know who wrote the review. Whilst still probably the most common type of review, ‘open access’ is beginning to change this practice, with reviewers’ comments open for everyone to see, including the author(s), and similarly, authors’ names are not blinded from the reviewer. This process unmasks the reviewer, with inability to hide behind academic anonymity. Our thoughts are that this will reduce comments of the ‘silly, silly, silly’ ilk.
Finally, in our proposed six C's of writing, a helpful review is care for the process. A big responsibility of a reviewer is to review the science of a manuscript. After all, a discipline does not want bad science to end up in its literature (Annesley 2013). Although peer review is considered crucial to the selection and publication of good-quality science, alarmingly, empirical evidence suggests that low-quality reviews are associated with low-quality publications (Kurihara & Colleti 2013). These authors suggest explanations for this as being that poorly performing reviewers are less critical and less knowledgeable about quality manuscript structure and statistics and editors may overestimate the quality of the review. There have even been studies where fictitious manuscripts with intentional errors have been sent for review and the recommendations have ranged from acceptance, rejection and revision (Kurihara & Colleti 2013).
In sum, there are good-quality reviews and poor-quality reviews. We have used the six C's as a framework for outlining some of the principles of a helpful review: helpful for author, editor and journal. However, because we know there is a correlation between good-quality reviews and the publication of good-quality papers, the implications extend further. We have a collective responsibility to make sure that we do not allow poor science to creep into our discipline. Writing a helpful review is an important way of contributing to this process.