AcWriMo: Peer Review

peer rev
[photo credit: Javier Leiva: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Most of the work that you publish will go through some form of peer review. This is exactly as the name suggests; your peers will review your work and make suggestions to improve the article (for more information see the Elsevier website). Researchers generally suggest that their work is improved by the peer review process, and PGRs note that the process can help with their thesis and viva for their doctorate if some of their work has been published and undergone peer review. Sense about Science conducted a survey of researchers in 2009 about peer review. Their results and more information can be found on their website. Peer review is a subject up for debate; many articles are still being written about the system and its flaws and benefits (e.g.  Mervis, J. 2014). Below we will look at some of the main things you need to know about peer review.

Different forms of peer review

  • One-way anonymous peer-review or single-blind
    • author identity is known to reviewer but not vice versa
  • Two-way anonymous peer-review or double-blind
    • neither author nor reviewer identity known to each other
  • Open peer review
    • both author and reviewer are known to each other (but not necessarily to the readership)

The most common of these is single-blind, and each has advantages and disadvantages.

The peer review process

Below is a simplified diagram of the process. Journals are all slightly different, so check on the journals website when you are looking to submit or review an article.

Rejection by editorial staff prior to peer review

  • Possible reasons
    • content out-of-scope, unsuitable manuscript type, obvious flaws, ethical problems, obvious lack of novelty, etc
  • All journals will do this to some degree
  • Most common for high-impact journals
  • Particularly seen where submissions greatly outnumber the available space
  • Editors’ responsibility to their reviewers (don’t waste their time)

Rejection/ acceptance from reviewer comments

Accept without changes

  • relatively rare: this is the case for all disciplines

Accept with changes

  • generally common, but rates of acceptance vary tremendously (discipline-to-discipline and journal-to-journal)
  • rates of acceptance sometimes seen as a measure of “merit” (indirect at best, arguably irrelevant)


  • very common, essentially unavoidable, happens to “everyone”

How to review

To a greater or lesser extent, journals give guidelines for reviewers (ElsevierSpringerWileyTaylor and Francis; specific journals: BMJ and Journal of Economics), and researchers blog tips about how to be a good reviewer like this one on the guardian blog, which is a good read.

When you are asked to review for a journal, you should ask yourself if you should accept the assignment. Think about:

  • your expertise
  • conflict of interest
  • have you reviewed this paper for another journal?
  • will you meet the deadline?

The form you have to fill in will differ from journal to journal, but there are some fundamentals.

  • Look at the Author Guidelines for the journal.
  • Be constructive – make your comments clear, specific and useful.
  • Avoid generalisations. (As an example, if you say ‘the literature review is incomplete’, you need to explain how it is incomplete and what the author must do to complete it.)
  • Don’t use the hidden notes to the editor to criticise the authors
  • If you couldn’t sign your name to it, then you probably shouldn’t write it.
  • Number or label your comments.

Many researchers find reviewing a rewarding experience, and the more you do, the better you will become at it.

Now to give some hints and tips on how to respond to reviewers comments. Of course there is no right or wrong way to do this, so talking with your supervisor, line manager and peers will help.

Firstly it is important to remember that most reviewers are genuinely trying to make your paper better, and you should take their comments as such. When you get the comments back, it may be a good idea to read them through and then leave them for 24 hours or so to allow time for your initial reaction to subside. When you have had time to think about them, go through the comments one by one, and see how you can address them. Remember that your reviewers are your audience, so if they have misunderstood something, then it is likely that the rest of your readership will also misunderstand. Split the reviewers’ comments up, and number them. Address each comment, and make alterations in your paper. At the same time, compile a list of each comment, and how and where you have addressed them. This will aid in the checking process when you have sent the revised article back. For more information on how to respond to comments, see this article written by an editor talking about the three sins of response, and this one, which gives a number of tips on how to respond. There are also examples online of how other authors respond to their reviewers (see here and this one for a contrast ). Of course these are not to be copied, and examples from your peers may be more useful.