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Peer Review

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.

How to develop a useful reviewer database

Ideally you should aim to have a pool of referees in a database with details of their specialist areas and up-to-date contact details, as well as some notes on quality (i.e. number of times they have peer reviewed, how reliable they are, whether they peer review within the timescale, quality of their previous review(s)).

Some reviewers will write several pages of notes and even annotate and mark up manuscripts, others will produce one line reports that don’t help the editors make a decision. It is important to have this information available when selecting appropriate reviewers.

What programs and software are available

For smaller journals with relatively few submissions, a simple system (i.e. a spreadsheet) may be adequate, but for larger journals, electronic manuscript tracking systems can help to keep track of submissions and help to develop a reviewer database. Editorial Manager , is a web-based manuscript submission and review system that lets authors submit articles directly online. Editorial Manager makes it possible for authors to submit manuscripts via the Internet, provides online peer review services and tracks manuscripts through the entire review process. It also allows editors to communicate directly with authors and reviewers. Key features include automatic conversion of authors’ submissions into PDF format as well as supporting submissions in various file formats and special characters.

Clear instructions for reviewers

After a reviewer accepts your invitation to review a manuscript, the reply should include the article or a link to Editorial Manager and a template report form. They should be encouraged to make constructive comments and the template report form should have the following components:

  • Deadline by which the review is wanted by (with the option of them proposing an alternative within a reasonable timeframe)
  • Whether you want the review sent by email or uploaded to Editorial Manager
  • Instructions on evaluation of quality
  • Is it original work
  • Is it well researched? Are the methods appropriate? Are the conclusions a fair representation of the results?
  • Is all relevant previous research referenced?
  • Recommendations
  • Accept without changes (rare)
  • Accept if revised, but doesn’t need re-review
  • Revisions that need re-review by reviewer
  • Reject.

If a submitted paper’s English is considered to not be up to the standards to be sent to a busy reviewer, then it is the editor’s responsibility to communicate this to the author and suggest that the article undergoes copyediting prior to resubmission.

Setting deadlines and sending reminders

The invitation correspondence needs to clearly state the deadline by which the review should be returned by. Two to three weeks is fairly standard and, given the difficulty in sometimes finding good reviewers, they should always be given the option of negotiating an alternative return by date.
Reviewers can be busy people and gentle reminders are often required to chase them up for reviews. You may wish to develop template chaser emails containing the following elements:

  • Title for paper
  • That they had agreed to send a review on (manuscript number and title) by (date)
  • Date they had agreed
  • Date it was due by
  • That their opinion is important
  • Are they still able to review the manuscript
  • Method by which it should be sent (email, electronic submission)
  • Deadline response with a reminder that if you hear nothing you will have to approach alternative reviewers.

If you still get no reply, then consider approaching alternative reviewers from your list of back up reviewers.

Decision types: What they mean and communicating them to authors

Reviewer decisions are really just recommendations and they tend to fall into the following categories:

  • Accept without any revisions
  • Accept but on the condition that minor revisions will be done by the author (paper doesn’t need re-review)
  • Revisions required that need re-review by reviewer
  • Reject.

The decision should not be based on a poll of how many accepts and rejects and maybes the peer-reviewers gave. As an editor, you must verify what the reviewers have suggested and make the final decision. Sometimes reviewer comments may be very superficial and occasionally inappropriate. If there are situations where there are clear differences in opinions between reviewers then options include inviting another reviewer to make a final decision, or approaching an editorial board member.

Before sending the reviewer comments to an author it is good practice to edit and/or select the most constructive and relevant comments to make it clear to the author what the decision is and what might need to be done if their article needs revising.

Decisions tend to either be that the author needs to revise the manuscript or that the manuscript is rejected. Template emails are again useful here.

Request for revision should include statements as follows:

  • Your paper has now been peer reviewed and attached (or below) please find the reviewer comments
  • Please consider the comments and prepare a revised version of the manuscript plus a separate file with a point-by-point response to show how the comments have been addressed
  • Deadline revisions are required by.

Rejection letters are hard to write, especially in situations when an author has revised the manuscript, sometimes several times, and it is always important to show respect for the time the author has spent writing and/or revising the manuscript. The elements of a rejection letter should include:

"Your paper has now been peer reviewed and the manuscript was considered to be unsuitable for publication in (journal name) for several reasons, such as:"

  • The paper requires further experimentation to be complete
  • The paper is a duplication of what others have already published and adds nothing substantial to what is already known
  • The results don’t support the conclusions
  • Plagiarism
  • References are too old.

It is important that the rejection letter contains honest and constructive feedback. Equally, it is important that authors are not given false hope that if they make some revisions to the article then they can resubmit it to your journal if this is definitely not the case.

In cases of rejection due to plagiarism, the rejection letter should follow a different format and you should refer to COPE for flowcharts and template letters.

Working with reviewers

Similar to editorial board members, the role of a reviewer is a voluntary position and it is more about the prestige and honor of being a reviewer rather than other benefits.

Reviewers can be very busy people and so it is important to not overload them with work. If you know that the same person is also writing an article for the journal or reviewing another article, or has very recently reviewed an article within the last month, it would be sensible to avoid asking them again too soon—the more they are overloaded the less likely they will be to say yes. But, much of this depends on your working relationship with them.

In terms of setting deadlines for reviews, this depends on your internal deadlines; a month may be adequate or too long. It is important to be flexible and plan well in advance, especially for holiday periods, the end of the year is usually a difficult time to recruit reviewers and you always need to have at least one or two back-up reviewers on standby to contact if you have any problems in recruiting and/or hearing back from reviewers when you are working to a tight deadline.

If you have no response from a reviewer, despite one or two chaser emails, you should go ahead and invite an alternative reviewer and let the person who was originally invited know that they are no longer required on this occasion. There are many reasons why a reviewer may not respond to your emails and it is important to be polite and sensitive in your correspondence. The email should state that you understand that they are busy; however, due to time restrictions in meeting publication deadlines, on this occasion another reviewer has been recruited.

Sometimes reviewer comments can be quite scathing, or the quality of the review might be very superficial. Occasionally reviewers might be in direct competition with the author, want more of their own publications cited or have another agenda. Furthermore, peer reviewers might feel restricted and intimidated in what they say about a manuscript as they are worried about the potential repercussions of making negative comments.

Different refereeing systems have been developed, such as double-blind refereeing, where the author and the referee identities are masked as far as possible, which contrasts with open refereeing where the referee and the author know each others identity.

Conflicts of interest can exist with reviewers and you should aim to screen much of this out before you invite a reviewer. Reviewers must therefore also be asked to state explicitly whether conflicts do or do not exist. Reviewers must not use knowledge of the work, before its publication, to further their own interests.

It is always polite to thank reviewers when they have spent the time reviewing an article. A personal email is often best and reviewers tend to be interested in what the overall decision was.