Image Credit: Chris Phutully

Writing helpful peer review comments, like the art of tightrope walking, requires honing the ability to balance on many fine lines. Referees have to find a balance between overstepping the lines of being too critical or too careful, too specific or too vague, too conclusive or too ambiguous…and the list goes on.

Regardless of the stage of your scholarly career, learning how to write consistently constructive peer review comments takes time. You have to develop strategies for giving firm but friendly feedback and delivering it in an effective way. We’ve rounded up 4 pieces of advice from scholars around the web to help you produce more helpful peer review comments.

Avoid decision fatigue

How many decisions have you made on an average day by 11AM? Think about it for a minute. From choosing what to wear and how to avoid the road construction on the way to work, to which emails to respond to first, how many meetings to add to your schedule, and when you’ll find time for your research, by 11AM you’ve likely made a lot of choices.

In his blog post “How to Peer Review,” Matt Might, Associate Professor of Computing at the University of Utah, explains that all of these decisions weighing on your mind can add up and impact your peer reviewing ability. Might advises scholars to take steps to avoid ‘decision fatigue,’ or a deterioration in decision making quality, as a key way to write better peer review comments. Decision fatigue generally sets in towards the end of the day, when you’ve become tired from making many decisions, big and small. In order to avoid decision fatigue, Might encourages scholars to try to work on peer reviews earlier rather than later. Additionally, he encourages referees to work on no more than one review a day, when possible, and to avoid reviewing when they feel tired. By consciously working on peer reviews before decision fatigue sets in you’ll likely find that you’re able to complete review assignments faster, since you’ll be working on them when your mind is fresh.

List the positives and then the negatives

When it comes time to write peer review comments, it can feel second nature to lean heavily towards giving criticism rather than praise. Of course peer reviews need to be rigorous and critical, but don’t forget to remind authors of what they are doing right as well.

In “Helpful Hints for Effective Peer Reviewing,” Seri Lowell, Scientific Writing Specialist at Bates College, encourages reviewers to list out the positive aspects of a paper before getting into which changes should be made. In this way reviewers can ensure that they are taking adequate efforts to see all sides of a submission.

Lowell reminds reviewers that it can be difficult for authors to pull back and see the bigger picture of their manuscript. If your review is comprised of nearly all criticisms, the author may lose sight of the working parts of their submission and could potentially make it worse in revisions. Your goal as a peer reviewer should be to help the author identify what he or she is doing correctly as well as where to improve. Don’t be so negative that the author ends up pulling apart her entire paper. Additionally, Matt Might reminds reviewers to keep snarky comments to themselves, as the presence of sarcasm in peer review may nullify any useful feedback you’ve provided in the eyes of the author.

Give concrete examples and advice

Be sure to backup your peer review comments and opinions with concrete examples and suggestions for improvement. No one likes to be told “this is unclear” without getting the context they need to understand why. Does the paper have precise or convoluted language? Is the data presented in a logical or leading manner? As you ask and answer these questions find and highlight examples to explain why you think what you do.

In the Guardian article “Peer Review: How to Get it Right - 10 Tips”, Brian Lucey, Professor of Finance of Trinity College Dublin, reminds reviewers to be realistic in the comments they give as well. If you suggest that the author should provide additional data, be sure that data is actually available or accessible. If you suggest that the author add additional sections to the paper be sure that they will fit within the main aims of the submission. You don’t want to frustrate authors by suggesting that they add references to research outside of the scope of what they are trying to prove or disprove.

Don’t be afraid to seek support

Finally, particularly as a young peer reviewer, it’s important to always be cognizant of when you may need help in making a fair assessment. In “How to Become Good at Peer Review: A Guide for Young Scientists,” Jennifer Raff, Research Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, reminds reviewers not to hesitate to seek support before making review recommendations of which you’re not entirely sure. For example, if you’re reviewing a scientific paper and you’re not sure if the experiment was conducted in the best manner don’t hesitate to read outside sources and ask other scholars for guidance when applicable (keeping manuscript information confidential of course). If, even after seeking additional sources, you feel that a portion of the data requires further consideration, Raff encourages researchers not to hesitate to recommend that editors have an expert reviewer step in to take a look at those sections.

What suggestions do you have for writing a solid peer review? Let us know on Twitter by tweeting at @ScholasticaHQ!

Danielle Padula

This post was written by Danielle Padula,
Community Development