What reviewers think (Part 2)

In our second blog post celebrating Peer Review Week, eLife Ambassador Giulia Bertolin asked a panel of editors and reviewers what they consider is a “Golden Rule for peer review”.


When scientists submit their work to journals for publication, their manuscript goes through an evaluation by journal editors and by experts in the field to verify the experimental approaches and provide authors with suggestions to improve the manuscript. Building strong and convincing review reports is a difficult exercise, and ECRs are often unfamiliar with this practice.

To celebrate Peer Review week, we asked some prominent journal editors and reviewers from different scientific disciplines if a “Golden Rule” for peer-review exists, and what tips they had for ECRs who want to start reviewing papers.

1. In choosing your reviewers, what aspects do you look for?

All editors have their own personal way of finding the best reviewers for a manuscript. “I usually use at least one or two of the author’s recommended reviewers (who by the way often tend to the most critical!) and honor the requests for exclusion”, says Marianne Bronner (California Institute of Technology; eLife senior editor).  Other editors rely on a mental “database” of reviewers that allows them to easily select familiar names. Gary Westbrook (Oregon Health and Science University; eLife senior editor) says: “If I am very familiar with the topic, it is quite easy to identify the scientific groups and thus the reviewers that would be most appropriate for the work. If I am less familiar with the work, I first look at the references in the manuscript (and sometimes abstracts and papers) to refresh my memory on the topic and also look at prior papers from the authors of the manuscript. That gives me enough perspective to provide names of reviewers”. Martina Picciotto (Editor in Chief of the Journal of Neuroscience) likes to look for groups that recently published in the same area of the manuscript they are evaluating, and who used similar approaches.

However, there was a general consensus on the fact that the selected reviewers must be fair, competent, and scientists who are able to go to the main point of the paper “without picking up on small experimental details” as Chris Burd (Yale School of Medicine, eLife editor) says.

“Treat authors as you would like to be treated yourself as an author”

2. If you could ask reviewers to follow a single rule, what would it be?

“Be able to defend your comments in a conversation with the authors if they knew you wrote them” says Gary Westbrook. Marianne Bronner suggests a re-formulation of the classical ethical maxim: “Treat authors as you would like to be treated yourself as an author”. And most of the other editors we talked to concurred that this is, by far, the most important rule in peer review.

Together with this general “golden” rule, some editors have a more “technical” point of view. For instance, Lori Buhlman (Midwestern University) and Martina Picciotto ask their reviewers to evaluate the validity of the experimental design and of the statistical analyses, and whether the conclusions reached by the authors are supported by the data presented in the paper. However, Marianne Bronner also insists that reviewers not ask for “unnecessarily picky experiments”, but rather identify “only the necessary revisions”. In this aspect, Lori Buhlman wishes that reviewers keep an open mind aboutaccepting novel or unfamiliar approaches to addressing hypotheses”.

“Approach a manuscript as if it is almost acceptable, and your job is to make it acceptable”.

3. Is there any relevant starting point you would like to suggest to early career researchers willing to become reviewers?

The editors all agree on the fact that the ability to provide good review reports comes with training. Such training starts with “going through the peer review process yourself (generate data, write a paper, reply to reviews)” says Martina Picciotto. She also suggests to “participate to mentored review opportunities through your educational institution or scientific societies”.

The great majority of the editors we interviewed highly recommend ECRs to ask their mentors to help them to review papers. Alternatively, the mentor could suggest the mentee’s name to the editor, as many journals nowadays ask invited reviewers to suggest co-reviewers. If the reviewer report is good, the editors will definitely ask again. Anyway, “The sooner you start, the better” says Chris Burd.

Lori Buhlman concludes with a positive message for all reviewers: “Approach a manuscript as if it is almost acceptable, and your job is to make it acceptable”.


By Giulia Bertolin (@bertolingiulia2)

Giulia is a researcher at the Genetics and Development Institute of Rennes (IGDR) in  France.

Edited by Devang Mehta (@drdevangm)

We are grateful to all the editors and reviewers who took the time to reply to our question.

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