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‘Another look’ at peer review: reviewing review articles

Posted by , on 25 September 2020

If this post causes a sense of déjà vu, it might be because you’ve read our recent articles: An Introduction to Writing Review Articles and Getting involved in peer review. For #PeerRevWeek2020, I thought I’d explore the intersection of these two topics.

Although there are guides to train potential peer reviewers for reviewing research articles, the format and purposes of reviews aren’t the same, so they must be approached from a different perspective and assessed by different criteria. You might even be an established group leader by the first time you’ve been invited to evaluate a review simply because there are just fewer of them than research articles. So, what does an editor expect from your report? Broadly speaking, you can think about it in terms of A, B, Cs.


The most important role of a peer reviewer is to make sure that the review articles are scientifically accurate. By this, I mean that statements should be factually correct, with appropriate references that support the conclusions. Accuracy also extends to the structure of the article. For example, does the title and abstract actually reflect what is covered in the review? Figures, although schematic and simplified, should also present the latest interpretation of the data accurately.


Next, think about whether the review is balanced. As a whole, think about whether the articles covers everything you’d expect to see on the topic; make sure to point out if a large body of work is missing and check that the reference list isn’t biased! Even for opinion pieces, it is important that review-type articles are balanced and provide both sides of an argument. It is helpful for the authors to point out ongoing debate or controversy in the field, especially for non-specialists who might not be aware of the types of discussions that are happening. Where the authors propose new ideas and hypotheses, it is important that they distinguish these points from established facts. In addition, remember that studies have both strengths and weaknesses, and that techniques or approaches have their advantages and limitations – are both sides acknowledged?


Review-type articles are read by specialist and non-specialists alike, so it’s important that they are clear and accessible to a broad audience. For journals that developmentally edit or copy edit manuscripts, many of these points will be addressed by the in-house editor – although it is still useful for them to know what you think needs work, even if you don’t provide a point-by-point list of necessary changes.

It’s crucial that language and phrasing is clear and unambiguous to avoid confusion or misinterpretation. As an expert in your field, it might be easy to gloss over an acronym that you’re familiar with or to know that a gene or cell exists by two (or more) names. Take care to check that authors always introduce and define new terms, and use them consistently. Think about whether the structure of the article prepares you for what to expect and whether you can navigate the article easily. Most reviews should guide the reader through the article and provide all the necessary background to make links in thought between data and conclusions. Finally, are the figures well designed, well presented and intuitive? Would additional figures, boxes or tables help to clarify text and illustrate important key points?


On occasion, an editor might raise specific queries with you about the manuscript. For example, if the article is very long, they might ask if you can identify specific parts that could be cut. Alternatively, they might notice a lack of recent references and might ask if the article is timely, as well as a whole range of other questions.


Some last thoughts

  • Remember to be polite, courteous and constructive in writing your report.
  • Try to be specific – refer to line or page numbers if you have concerns with a particular statement.
  • Most articles will be proofread before publication, so there often isn’t the need to list every typo you find.
  • Do highlight if you think spelling, grammar or punctuation should be addressed, but avoid suggesting that it should be read by a ‘native English speaker’. This suggests that authors with English as a second language write less well then native English speakers – this is simply not the case!
  • If in doubt, ask the editor for guidance.
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