The Hidden Mentor: The Role of the Reviewer

Peer Reviewer Resources

Editor’s Note: The following post is part of a series of Peer Reviewer Resources written by some of Academic Medicine‘s top peer reviewers. Check back each Thursday for the next post in the series. Read more about our Peer Reviewer Resources

By: Mark Cummings, PhD, professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine, Michigan State University, College of Osteopathic Medicine

A good reviewer assumes the responsibility of being both critic on behalf of the journal and a mentor to the author. The journal expects a fair and balanced review to ensure that the manuscript meets quality standards and represents a worthy, publishable contribution. There is also the knowledge that reviewer comments will be channeled back to the author. In this role, the reviewer has the opportunity and obligation to point out inherent shortcomings and offer suggestions for improvement. Reviews of strong articles tend to be short, while those with numerous weaknesses are much longer. It is easy to be dismissive of a flawed manuscript, the challenge for a reviewer is to provide direction and guidance on ways the project can be improved. This anonymous mentorship role takes a great deal of personal commitment and time, and the reviewer can never expect so much as a thank you from the author for his/her efforts.

In reviewing, what key features make a manuscript stand out positively?

  • Relevance to medical education. The manuscript should address issues of general importance to medical educators. Topics that are conceptually too narrow, that are unique to a single institution and not exportable to others, or that cover matters that simply reaffirm known and established research fail to meet the Academic Medicine standards for inclusion in the journal.
  • A clearly defined research question. Within the journal’s space limits, the author seeks to provide fresh insights into medical education issues based on solid research methods. A good author recognizes the limits of the study and does not generalize and/or stretch results beyond the scope of the research question.
  • Researcher vs. crusader. A crusader is someone who starts with a conclusion and works backwards to build a case. Reference selections tend to be out of the mainstream and solid research citations are ignored. In a strong article, the research question and the presentation of results direct the flow of the article, leading to a conclusion that is explained in the context of known and respected research.
  • Logical transitions. A manuscript should have an appropriate balance of a beginning, middle, and end. It is not uncommon for authors to be dismissive of this balance and spend too little or too much time on one section or the other. The typical flaw is the inclusion of extraneous information not central to the research question that adversely affects logical transition and prevents it from smoothly moving from paragraph to paragraph. A poorly organized manuscript is one reason why an author’s submission will many times fail to rise to the top. Here is where a conscientious reviewer can expect to expend considerable time and effort in mentoring by providing feedback.

Like many things in life, reviewing manuscripts is an art and not a science. It is also a way to assist peers as they seek to disseminate their research efforts. For those of us who have received such support in the past, it is now our turn to assist others.