How to be a peer reviewer

Dr. Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis shares her experience of being a peer reviewer and offers tips for good practice

Woman writing in a libraryI first acted as a peer reviewer during my PhD.

On that first occasion, I received some guidance to check I was taking the right approach. Since then, I’ve reviewed more times than I can count and have mentored others doing their first reviews.

I’ve reviewed for many journals, including The Lancet, the Journal of Public Health and the Journal of Family Psychology, and I review research proposals and have submitted reports for research councils and conferences.

I’ve also been on the editorial board of Child Abuse Review since 2004 and an associate editor since 2014. In this role, I read manuscript submissions, send them out for review, consider reviewers’ comments and make recommendations to the editor.

In turn, I’ve benefitted from reviews as an author. Sometimes it’s just a little guidance. On other occasions, a review has really helped shape my work into something much better: I’m enormously grateful for that.

As an experienced peer reviewer, I want to share my experience of why peer reviewing is such a positive practice to be involved in and some tips for good practice.

Why do we peer review?

Peer reviewing is a crucial element in ensuring that work we publish is evidence based and reliable.

Peer reviewing helps to maintain standards, consider whether a good research question has been asked and whether the study was a good way of answering that question.

Peer reviewing looks at whether the results of a study are sound and if the conclusions drawn and recommendations made are appropriate based on the findings. A review also checks whether those recommendations are going too far - or not going far enough.

Peer reviewing allows for another perspective: authors can become so immersed in their work that the bigger picture is lost. Peer reviewers keep this in check.

So, we need people to put themselves forward to review.

We need reviewers from a variety of professions and perspectives: it’s just as important to ensure that research has application in the “real world” as it is to know that research methods have been correctly applied.

Benefits of being a peer reviewer

I always enjoy the opportunity to see other research that’s taking place; I sometimes read work in areas I wouldn’t have found the time to look at otherwise.

It’s nice to give authors another view on how to improve a piece of work. Helping to develop and improve a paper, report or research proposal is rewarding – but there are other benefits too.

There’s the obvious point that it’s good experience to have on your CV (and it specifically helps with grant applications) but, more importantly, we learn from the work of others.

I enjoy the diverse styles people use to write up their work and the different methodologies they use. It can spark new ideas or make me consider my own work in a different way.

Sometimes, you’ll read a report that fits with your own findings, on other occasions it gives you a completely new perspective.

Tips for positive peer reviewing

If you’re interested in peer reviewing, it’s important to think about what helps authors – and to make sure you’re reviewing the right kind of research to match your expertise and experience.

I hope these tips will help.

    • Mentor others and find someone to mentor you
      Everyone needs guidance at the beginning and a mentor can answer your questions and help build your confidence. Becoming a mentor further down the line will strengthen your own practice.
    • Seek out peer reviewing opportunities
      Look for a journal that publishes work you feel you could contribute to. You can email and propose yourself, or nominate others, to peer review. Also, ask others to nominate you if they are approached to review but cannot on that occasion.
    • Think about what you can contribute
      As long as you’re clear about where your expertise is, and isn’t, the review will be taken in that context. Even if you feel you don’t have sufficient “expertise” you may still be able to focus on one element of the research. When you review some of the big research councils’ grant proposals, for example, you have to include a statement outlining the areas of the grant you feel you’re qualified to comment on, but also to note any area you’re not as familiar with. In my own reviewing, I would comment on the psychological or applied aspects of the work, but not other areas, such as the technical aspects of brain scanners.
    • Be sure you’re the right person to review each report
      If you receive a peer review proposal, but don’t have sufficient expertise to comment, say so. There will always be other reports. If you do turn down the chance to do a review, and you know someone else who could do it instead, nominate them.
    • Read the report thoroughly
      When you’re reviewing, if something important seems to be missing, be sure you haven’t just failed to read it.
    • Think about what will help someone improve this report
      Work done for and by the NSPCC is important for children, for example, so the reviewer’s job is to make sure that message gets out there in the best possible way.
    • Highlight the positives, not just the negatives
      Feedback needs to be constructive, even when delivering challenging opinions. It’s always possible to highlight areas of change in a positive and supportive way.
    • Be specific about what needs to be changed
      Imagine you’re the author: how do you feel when feedback isn’t clear? If you feel something should be phrased differently, say exactly how and why. Always avoid short reviews that are too general. Overly critical, rude or personal statements are also unhelpful.
    • Remember you’re just giving your view
      It’s important to bear in mind that your opinion is not the only one. The author, and other peer reviewers, may not agree with your recommendations. It’s all part of the process and shouldn’t be taken personally.

So, in summary, think what you can contribute and don’t be afraid to get involved. You can benefit from it – and so can others!

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