How to write a structured reviewer report: 5 tips from an early-career researcher

My mother used to sell dried jujube fruits at our family home. Together with my young brothers, we helped her pack them in small plastic bags. But first, we washed the jujube fruits to remove dirt. While packing, my mother would remind us, “A single rotten jujube fruit can spoil the whole packet.”

I recently received some reviewer comments on a manuscript I had submitted. Some of the comments seemed rude, ignorant, or unnecessary. I almost sent an angry ‘response to reviewers’ dismissing the comments — but then I stopped myself.

I realised there was no difference between my manuscript and a bucket of jujube fruits. One error, one smudge of dirt, could spoil the entire project.

This experience helped me see things in a different light: instead of getting angry I revised the manuscript and addressed all the issues raised by the reviewers. I’m confident this round of peer review helped to improve my manuscript.

The tables turned not long after that when I received my first invitation to peer-review. It was now my turn to “wash the jujube fruit.” However, like most early career researchers, I didn’t have a formal training in peer review. It’s not surprising that I spent a considerable time commenting on English usage instead of focusing on the science.

I have been conducting peer reviews for three years now and my reviewer reports have evolved, mostly through practice but also because I’ve learned some helpful tips along the way. I no longer send English language reports to the editors, but critical comments on novelty, significance and research quality.

Here are my five tips on how to write a more structured reviewer report:

1. Enroll in a peer review class

To learn how to critique the science in manuscripts, I took classes with American Chemical Society Reviewer LabElsevier Publishing CampusNature MasterClass, and Springer Author AcademyPublons Academy is probably the best since it required me to actually review a manuscript.

2. Read the journal guidelines

Each journal has specific guidelines for reviewers that provide information on the focus and structure of the reviewer report. Environmental Science and Technology recommends that reviewers ‘give estimates of the scientific value of the work, together with some basis for their opinion.’ On the other hand, Elsevier recommends that reviewers include a summary, impression regarding novelty and significance, and specific comments on contents.

3. Understand the aims and scope of the journal

I have found reading the Aims and Scope section of a journal helpful because it informs me of the journal’s research interest, audience, manuscript types, and areas out of scope. Furthermore, the Aims and Scope offers a brief description of the preferred approach to synthesize results. For example, Environmental Pollution recommends that ‘papers must be process-oriented and/or hypotheses-based to be considered for publication.

4. Read through the manuscript at least twice

I read a manuscript I am reviewing at least twice; the third time, I will be preparing the reviewer report. For a 5,000-word manuscript, I read it through in 15 minutes, to get an idea of what the study is about, the experimental approach and the results. I forget about the manuscript and then come back later for a second reading. In the second reading, I identify areas of concern by highlighting and annotating the manuscript.

5. Ten ways for identifying areas of concern

I have developed a checklist for identifying areas of concern:

  1. Summary – what is the objective of the study, how did the authors seek to meet the objective and did they achieve it?
  2. Impression – are there any studies on the area, and where does the study fit in the body of knowledge?
  3. Abstract – is the purpose, results, and global implication clearly stated and consistent with the rest of the manuscript?
  4. Introduction – did the authors clearly provide a problem statement, the state of science, and their research goals and hypothesis?
  5. Experimental approach – did the authors’ experiments fully address their hypothesis in a reproducible and valid way?
  6. Results – are the results clearly stated in a manner consistent with the experimental approach and research objectives?
  7. Discussion – did the authors critically examine their results in light of the state of science highlighted in the introduction?
  8. Conclusion – are the conclusions drawn from the study related to the hypothesis and plausible in terms of the results obtained?
  9. References – did the authors faithfully cite the listed references and did they follow journal guidelines?
  10. Illustrations – are the illustrations clear and saying what the authors suggested in the manuscript?
In conclusion…

I agree with Lerback and Hanson, “Another career-building activity is serving as a peer reviewer for publications. This develops writing skills and expertise through exposure to other manuscripts, and fosters relationships with fellow scholars and scientific leaders. Such activities are especially important for young scientists.”

Edmond Sanganyado is an environmental analytical chemist with a strong background in fate and transport of organic pollutants advanced skills in analytical method development. He has over seven years experience in environmental monitoring and characterization, and completed over 120 pre- and post-publication peer reviews. He graduated from the Publons Academy in September 2017.