Practical Strategies for Enhancing the Peer Review of Manuscripts

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: Sheila W. Chauvin, PhD, MEd, professor, Department of Medicine, School of Medicine, and School of Public Health, director, Office of Medical Education Research and Development, School of Medicine, and director, Academy for the Advancement of Educational Scholarship, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center – New Orleans

In the series of posts pertaining to peer review, we have received excellent perspectives and suggestions for enhancing one’s effectiveness in the peer review of manuscripts. These contributions reflect much of my own perspectives and strategies. The challenge for me now is to consider and offer what else might be valuable to the AM Rounds readership. As I reflect on my role as a peer reviewer, I remember how I am impacted each time a new invitation shows up in my e-mailbox. With each occurrence, I am reminded of both the profound privilege afforded me by the editor and the responsibility I bear to the journal and equally so to the manuscript author(s) and the academic community from which the journal’s readers come. Both the privilege and the responsibility motivate me to do the best job that I can each and every time. For me, reviewing a manuscript is a multi-layered process. I find that being systematic helps me to be thorough, complete, and consistent from one review to the other, especially when juggling the everyday demands of work and life. Realizing how most (if not all) medical educators are so busy with their packed days and multiple and simultaneous roles and responsibilities, I decided to share the practical aspects of what works for me as a manuscript reviewer through a checklist that you might find useful.

Good Practices of Manuscript Peer Review

To accept or not—that is the question!

  • Reply to the invitation promptly.
  • Check your calendar—Do you have the time to meet the deadline?
  • Read the abstract carefully and check the authors. Is it a “good fit” with your background and expertise?
  • Does any potential conflict of interest exist? If yes, consult the editor before accepting the invitation.
  • Decided to accept? If yes, access the manuscript and print it immediately. Check to be sure it is complete and there are no technical problems.
  • Schedule review activities in your calendar—reserve time for reading, reviewing, writing, refining, and responding, and include a 3-day advance reminder of the deadline.

First, be a reader.

  • Within a few days of accepting the review invitation, read the manuscript as a reader from beginning to end without any mark-up or notes. Depending on the quality of the manuscript, two to three readings might be needed to get a solid sense of the work and the message(s) put forth by the author(s).
  • Reflect on the experience and form an initial impression. For example, list or sketch what was the primary focus and purpose, what was done and learned, what was clear, what was absent or confusing, was it organized, logical, well written, and integrated, did the author “close the loop” and offer new questions or insights? How well does the work and the manuscript message fit the journal contents and its readership? What is your impression of how the manuscript can contribute to the field—your initial “so what” response? What questions do you need to ponder?
  • Put it away for a few days to allow time for processing and thinking.
  • If necessary, consult the relevant literature and read other publications.

Now, return as a reviewer.

  • Recalibrate yourself as a reviewer—read reviewer guidelines and review criteria and tools (e.g., reviewer form). I do this every time, regardless of how often I review manuscripts. In this role, I am the “instrument” that can be only as good as my adherence to the review criteria.
  • Review the manuscript through careful reading and marking. I refer to the review criteria during the process to maintain focus and consistency.
  • When done, put the manuscript away for a day or two to process and reflect further.
  • Revisit the marked manuscript and assessment notes with the criteria in hand. Revise as needed to enhance accuracy and completeness.
  • Repeat the review as needed. I usually revisit and re-review all or parts of the manuscript two or three times, depending on the quality and complexity of the work and writing (of course, less when the quality of the work and writing is high).
  • The review is done and ready for writing when all the relevant criteria have been fully addressed and examples and referenced text from the manuscript are clearly identified to illustrate or justify specific critique and offer suggestions for revision, as appropriate.

Write the review to communicate effectively with the editor and author(s) and submit it on time.

  • Remember the privilege and responsibilities to journal, author(s), and professional community. Approach the review as a scholar and a coach.
  • Be logical and organized in writing the review.
  • Identify examples and reference text to support identified strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript and to offer suggestions for revision, as appropriate.
  • Focus the review on the content and scholarly work, leave the details of editing and formating to the expertise of copy editors.
  • When revisions are recommended, identify the revisions that you view as most critical.
  • End on a positive note, including thanking the authors for their submission and communicating appreciation for the opportunity to review the manuscript. When appropriate, offer suggestions on how the author(s) can enhance or improve future efforts and/or build upon their work, even when recommending a reject decision.
  • Read the final version of the review from the perspective of an author. That is, if you were the author, would you find that the review reflects an appropriate balance of strengths and weaknesses? Does the review reflect a thorough assessment and application of the review criteria?  Is the review written in a way that you feel respected and supported, even if the decision is to reject? If revisions are recommended, are they clear and provide sufficient guidance for being successful in responding and providing a revised version?
  • Remember to proofread carefully.
  • Use confidential comments to the editor when needed and be specific to help him/her use your critique to render a decision. Include information or expertise that might be needed to complete the review (e.g., methods, statistical, or qualitative data analysis consultation; additional copy edit assistance when use of English language may be a factor). Don’t duplicate what is already in the comments to the authors. Instead, reference particular points that will be important to the editor’s decision making.
  • Submit the review as soon as it is complete and definitely by the requested deadline.

Participating as a peer reviewer is an important role for supporting and furthering our academic community and colleagues. In the process, we learn from each other and enhance our abilities to advance the field, individually and collectively. Yes, it is a lot of work for all of us—authors, reviewers, editors, and journal staff—and this work often poses challenges that stretch us, but it is also fun and rewarding. Every time I review a manuscript, I grow as a professional and a scholar. And I hope that I help the authors whose work I review grow a bit as well.