Hints for Reviewing Articles

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: Rika Maeshiro, MD, MPH, advisor, Public Health and Prevention, Association of American Medical Colleges

The Academic Medicine staff asked me to share some hints about reviewing articles, and their timing was great. I happened to have two articles in my “to review” queue (one for Academic Medicine, the other for another journal), so I hope these concurrent assignments helped me to arrive at some practical and helpful pointers.

1. Print the article as soon as you agree to review it, even if you won’t be able to review it right away. Having it handy so that you can take advantage of spare moments (between meetings, between patients, when insomnia hits) will help make the task less burdensome.

2. Expect to read most articles 3 times:

  • First time: Read through the entire article rapidly to determine whether it makes sense; how you’re likely to rate the article (“Accept,” “Accept with minor revisions,” “Accept with major revisions,” “Reject” for Academic Medicine); and the amount of work required to complete the review. I think this step is best completed in one sitting. Typically, I don’t plan to move on to the second reading right away, so the first “fast read” (5-15 minutes) is relatively easy to squeeze into an average busy day.
  • Second time: Read sections carefully and mark up the document with questions, comments, and corrections. This step can be accomplished piece-meal, so reviewers can spread their work over days. The more focus reviewers can devote to this step, the less they will need to read again when writing up the review. Not surprisingly, better quality articles require less time on this and the following step.
  • Third time: Reread specific sections as needed while writing the review.

3. Formatting and drafting the review:

  • In a brief, introductory paragraph, include the following:
    • A concise (one sentence) description of the intent of the article and its potential value to readers of the journal.
    • The gist of the review, highlighting the most compelling findings. Sometimes, all of the important aspects of the review aren’t clear to me until I’ve finished writing the entire review, so I often update this paragraph before submitting the review.
  • Most journals provide review criteria for submissions. Reviewers should make sure that they are using the correct criteria for the type of article that they are reviewing (e.g., research, review, opinion), and respond to those criteria.
  •  In addition to responding to the journal’s criteria, I like to include a “Specific comments” section to document all of the questions, comments, and corrections that I had made. This approach is much easier for me than trying to distribute each of the findings among the journal’s criteria. Sometimes the findings don’t fit a particular category or are relevant to more than one of the criteria. Using section headings and page and line numbers, I identify each issue in sequence.
  • Make use of the “confidential comments to the editor” if you are struggling with some aspect of the article or review that you would prefer not to share with the author directly.

4. How to be polite and direct:

  • I assume that authors have spent a significant amount of time on their manuscripts before submitting them, so I aim to be respectful of their efforts. To that end, I tend to use soft language (“The authors might consider…”) with specific suggestions, or take the perspective of the audience (“Readers would want to know…”).
  • That said, if manuscripts seem to have systematic challenges (e.g., incomplete sentences, improper grammar, lack of organization, consistently unclear text), my comments are direct, pointing out the overarching problems and asking that, prior to any subsequent submissions, the authors: (1) proofread their article, and (2) ask a colleague who is not a coauthor to read the article.

5. Don’t assume…and when the shoe is on the other foot

  • If the authors and their institutions are not blinded, reviewers shouldn’t make assumptions about the value of an article based on the seniority of the authors or the perceived prestige of their institutions. Unless the journal directs you differently, each article should stand on its own merit.
  • Putting a good effort into peer reviewing articles results in valuable feedback to colleagues and can help reviewers hone their own writing skills—potentially resulting in greater success when their articles are peer reviewed!

Good luck!