How To Review a Journal Article in a Professional Manner
Acting as a peer reviewer for an academic or scientific journal is a productive way of using your expertise to benefit researchers and knowledge in your field. The time you dedicate to reviewing manuscripts submitted for consideration will only be well invested, however, if the review reports you produce are genuinely helpful for authors, editors and readers alike. Success therefore depends upon learning how to review a journal article thoughtfully and thoroughly.
How to deal with a request to review a journal article is the first concern. The editors of academic and scientific journals are extremely busy, and the researchers who submit manuscripts to them for consideration tend to want or need hasty publication, so delays must always be avoided. Yet it is also imperative to give serious thought to the task you are being asked to do. The primary concern is that you possess the knowledge, skills and experience to evaluate the research and paper adequately. Editors will usually send the article’s abstract and sometimes additional information when they request a review, so study the material carefully, find out more about the author’s research and publications, and ask the editor for further details if necessary so that you can make an informed decision. Only if you feel confident that you are truly qualified to assess the research and writing should you accept the offer to do a peer review.
A secondary question is whether you will have sufficient time to review the article properly, and this can only be answered if you understand how to review a journal article in the way the editor expects and requires. Many journals now offer peer reviewers detailed instructions on exactly what reviewing an article for them will involve, so be sure to examine the available instructions and ask for direction if procedures and expectations are not clear. Generally speaking you will need to read the article critically more than once and give the research and writing some serious thought between readings. An overall assessment of the article that considers the quality of both the research and the manuscript is usually required. Comments on methods, innovations, limitations, implications, writing, sources, presentation, suitability for the journal and other topics are standard, and any misconduct you detect, such as plagiarism, should be mentioned. More detailed feedback on particular strengths and weaknesses is normally expected as well, and sensible suggestions for genuine improvements should be offered. Explaining the reasoning behind your responses and recommendations, and distinguishing comments about factual errors that must be corrected from those containing opinions worth reflection are part of the process. Your view of whether the paper should be published or not and exactly what changes are required before the manuscript is accepted for publication usually closes a thorough review report.
Achieving all of that necessarily consumes time, and dashing off an incomplete or dismissive review report is never the right solution when deciding how to review a journal article properly. So if time is an issue, it is better to decline the offer and perhaps suggest an alternate reviewer than to string the editor and author along for weeks or months without being able to provide a valid review at the end. If you do
decide to review the article, careful organisation each step of the way will help you make the most of the time you have available. It will also help you communicate your thoughts about the article effectively to both the editor, who may not be an expert in the field, and the author. Working through a manuscript from beginning to end, for instance, and making precise comments about specific elements is an excellent way of ensuring accuracy and avoiding confusion as you respond to the research and suggest improvements. If you separate and number the comments in your review, the numbers can later be used by the author to explain revisions made in response to your feedback. These numbers will also make matters easier for the editor if additional communication about any of the issues you raise is required and for you as well if you agree to review the revised manuscript.
Finally, the exact needs of editors, journals and authors may vary somewhat in determining how to review a journal article successfully, but professionalism is a universal requirement. When you review a manuscript submitted to an academic or scientific journal, you are filling a vital professional role in the dissemination of knowledge in your field, and the potential impact of your actions should always be considered. Objectivity is the ideal and may require some effort when encountering results or methods that contradict or undermine your own work. Criticism should be offered with the goal of fostering sound and valuable research, and never on the basis of satisfying personal grudges or promoting your own research and publications. A positive and supportive attitude will serve the author and editor best even if you consider the research and manuscript poor. Remember that complete confidentiality is a necessity whenever unpublished scholarship is entrusted to you and that treating the article you are reviewing or its author with less than professional respect is never acceptable. That respect includes, of course, submitting your completed review report to the editor by the agreed deadline.
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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.