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.