The majority of manuscripts that journal editors receive are unsolicited. Some journals, however, only accept papers that they have invited. Some manuscripts will be of extremely high quality, but others papers will be borderline in terms of the scope of the journal and quality of work. With any paper submitted you will have to decide whether this is what the readers want or need and this is where peer reviewers come in.
The quality of peer reviewers is extremely important to the quality of a journal. Peer review helps to uphold the academic credibility of a journal—peer reviewers are almost like intellectual gatekeepers to the journal as they provide an objective assessment of a paper and determine if it is useful enough to be published.
The importance of peer review
Peer reviewers do several things:
- They safeguard the relevance of the work to the journal
- They advise about important earlier work that may need to be taken into account
- They check methods, statistics, sometimes correct English and verify whether the conclusions are supported by the research.
However, the final decision as to whether an article is accepted or rejected is always down to the editor.
For more introductory information on peer review, see the peer reviewer academy here.
How to find reviewers
Similar to being a member of a journal’s editorial board, being a reviewer is considered to be a prestigious position and can therefore attract unsolicited requests. Ideally, you should source your own and have a pool of referees in a database with details of their specialist areas as well as some notes (e.g. number of times they have peer reviewed articles, quality and timekeeping).
Sourcing referees is one of the most difficult tasks as an editor. Sometimes you can use editorial board members, but they might not be the most suitable and there is arguably a perceived conflict of interest in having them review for the journal they are on the editorial board for.
To find potential peer reviewers you can check the reference list of the manuscript, which is always a good starting point. You can also run searches in SpringerLink to identify who is publishing regularly and recently in that field. On Web of Science, you can rank authors by number of publications in a particular subject, so you can determine who the most prominent researchers are.
It is also equally important to try and obtain a global perspective on a paper, so when narrowing down your list of potential peer reviewers try not to have them all from the same country; the same principle that applies to forming an editorial board. This is particularly important for medical journals as burden of disease and treatment patterns vary from country to country so it often adds value having an article reviewed by international peers.
Once you have found potential referees, it is important to check for any potential conflicts of interest, which include having published with the author recently, working with the author, or being sponsored by a pharmaceutical company that is developing a competitor drug. For rare and new areas this can sometimes be problematic because it may just be one research group who is working on that particular area. However, you can try and delegate to the editorial board for suggestions if there is any potential difficulty; double-blind refereeing, where an author’s identity and that of the referee is concealed, can work well in these circumstances to avoid any potential bias. Some journals ask authors to provide a list of potential peer reviewers; however they must not be from the same institution/research group as the author and they must not have published together—this must be made clear in the instructions to authors information. Again when considering potential referees that have been suggested by an author you should always run a check on PubMed or SpringerLink to attempt to eliminate any potential conflicts of interest.
Finally, once you have the names of your potential reviewers you need to find their contact details. Most of the time, if they have published recently, their latest article might have an email address or contact telephone number in the correspondence section. However, most of the time you will need to be quite proactive at using internet searches to obtain up-to-date contact details.
How to target and invite reviewers
It is common to use 2–3 peer reviewers per manuscript. Because it is always possible that some people may not be available or able to review, it is wise to target more than is required on each occasion (e.g. have five reviewers in mind and recruit three, then if one says no you have another two potentials). It is not unheard of for editors to have to invite seven or more reviewers in order to obtain two peer reviews, especially around holiday seasons. On the other hand, editors must also be mindful that local/regional holidays should not be used as a reason to keep authors waiting. For a potential author, every day is important. It is professional practice to notify authors and reviewers in advance of upcoming holidays/office closures etc., providing them with alternative means of contact during this time wherever practically possible.
Always use reviewers appropriate to the field, perhaps doing similar research; they are more likely to find the paper relevant and interesting, and to be qualified to provide feedback on its strengths and weaknesses. You should avoid asking reviewers who are reviewing other articles for the journal and/or currently writing an article; or those that have reviewed within the last month—the more they are overloaded the less likely they will be to say yes.
When approaching referees it is good practice to invite them prior to sending the full manuscript. The communication should contain the following elements:
- Title of paper and journal
- Abstract (if applicable)
- Manuscript number
- That their opinion would be very helpful
- Are they able to referee the manuscript within the timeframe
- Is it in their area of expertise
- Do they have any conflicts of interest?
- If they can’t review then can they recommend someone else?
- Deadline for response.
If they accept, then you should send the paper with clear instructions and a referee report form.