How to Write a Peer Review for an Academic Journal: Six Steps from Start to Finish by Tanya Golash-Boza

PhD2Pub­lished has sev­er­al infor­ma­tive posts about writ­ing jour­nal arti­cles, and more recent­ly has fea­tured a post out­lin­ing a poten­tial­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary col­lab­o­ra­tive peer review process for this kind of pub­lish­ing. Todays post offers an alter­na­tive per­spec­tive; that of the jour­nal arti­cle peer review­er. Doing peer reviews pro­vides impor­tant expe­ri­ence for those writ­ing their own papers and may help writ­ers con­sid­er what they should include based on what peer review­ers are look­ing for.

At some point in your schol­ar­ly career, you like­ly will get asked to review an arti­cle for a jour­nal. In this post, I explain how I usu­al­ly go about doing a peer review. I imag­ine that each schol­ar has their own way of doing this, but it might be help­ful to talk open­ly about this task, which we gen­er­al­ly com­plete in iso­la­tion.

Step One:  Accept the invi­ta­tion to peer review. The first step in review­ing a jour­nal arti­cle is to accept the invi­ta­tion. When decid­ing whether or not to accept, take into con­sid­er­a­tion three things: 1) Do you have time to do the review by the dead­line? 2) Is the arti­cle with­in your area of exper­tise? 3) Are you sure you will com­plete the review by the dead­line? Once you accept the invi­ta­tion, set aside some time in your sched­ule to read the arti­cle and write the review.

Step Two: Read the arti­cle. I usu­al­ly read the arti­cle with a pen in hand so that I can write my thoughts in the mar­gins as I read. As I read, I under­line parts of the arti­cle that seem impor­tant, write down any ques­tions I have, and cor­rect any mis­takes I notice.

Step Three: Write a brief sum­ma­ry of the arti­cle and its con­tri­bu­tion. When I am doing a peer review, I some­times do it all in one sit­ting – which will take me about two hours – or I read it one day and write it the next. Often, I prefer to do the lat­ter to give myself some time to think about the arti­cle and to process my thoughts. When writ­ing a draft of the review, the first thing I do is sum­ma­rize the arti­cle as best I can in three to four sen­tences. If I think favor­ably of the arti­cle and believe it should be pub­lished, I often will write a longer sum­ma­ry, and high­light the strengths of the arti­cle. Remem­ber that even if you don’t have any (or very many) crit­i­cisms, you still need to write a review. Your cri­tique and acco­lades may help con­vince the edi­tor of the impor­tance of the arti­cle. As you write up this sum­ma­ry, take into con­sid­er­a­tion the suit­abil­i­ty of the arti­cle for the jour­nal. If you are review­ing for the top jour­nal in your field, for exam­ple, an arti­cle sim­ply being fac­tu­al­ly cor­rect and hav­ing a sound analy­sis is not enough for it to be pub­lished in that jour­nal. Instead, it would need to change the way we think about some aspect of your field.

Step Four: Write out your major crit­i­cisms of the arti­cle. When doing a peer review, I usu­al­ly begin with the larg­er issues and end with minu­ti­ae. Here are some major areas of crit­i­cism to con­sid­er:

–          Is the arti­cle well-orga­nized?

–          Does the arti­cle con­tain all of the com­po­nents you would expect (Intro­duc­tion, Meth­ods, The­o­ry, Analy­sis, etc)?

–          Are the sec­tions well-devel­oped?

–          Does the author do a good job of syn­the­siz­ing the lit­er­a­ture?

–          Does the author answer the ques­tions he/she sets out to answer?

–          Is the method­ol­o­gy clear­ly explained?

–          Does the the­o­ry con­nect to the data?

–          Is the arti­cle well-writ­ten and easy to under­stand?

–          Are you con­vinced by the author’s results? Why or why not?

Step Five: Write out any minor crit­i­cisms of the arti­cle.  Once you have laid out the pros and cons of the arti­cle, it is per­fect­ly accept­able (and often wel­come) for you to point out that the table on page 3 is mis­la­beled, that the author wrote “com­pli­ment” instead of “com­ple­ment” on page 7, or oth­er minu­ti­ae. Cor­rect­ing those minor errors will make the author’s paper look more pro­fes­sion­al if it goes out for anoth­er peer review, and cer­tain­ly will have to be cor­rect­ed before being accept­ed for pub­li­ca­tion.

Step Six: Review. Go over your review and make sure that it makes sense and that you are com­mu­ni­cat­ing your cri­tiques and sug­ges­tions in as help­ful a way as pos­si­ble.

Final­ly, I will say that, when writ­ing a review, be mind­ful that you are cri­tiquing the arti­cle in ques­tion – not the author. Thus, make sure your cri­tiques are con­struc­tive. For exam­ple, it is not appro­pri­ate to write: “The author clear­ly has not read any Fou­cault.” Instead, say: “The analy­sis of Fou­cault is not as devel­oped as I would expect to see in an aca­d­e­mic jour­nal arti­cle.” Also, be care­ful not to write: “The author is a poor writer.” Instead, you can say: “This arti­cle would ben­e­fit from a close edit­ing. I found it dif­fi­cult to fol­low the author’s argu­ment due to the many styl­is­tic and gram­mat­i­cal errors.” Although you are an anony­mous review­er, the Edi­tor knows who you are, and it nev­er looks good when you make per­son­al attacks on oth­ers. So, in addi­tion to being nice, it is in your best inter­est.

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