5 of 6 - Your Questions - Peer Review Toolbox
In the world of scholarly communications, the “3rd Reviewer” has become a trope--shorthand for peer review that is overly critical, too exhaustively detailed, or unreasonable in its requirements. In this issue, we respond to a question from one of our readers on how to avoid 3rd-reviewer-like behavior and calibrate feedback appropriately.
How not to be the dreaded 3rd reviewer?
Got questions of your own about peer review? Email us or complete this form.
Putting peer review in perspective
As a peer reviewer, you’re tasked with a delicate combination of responsibilities:
  1. Identifying any problems in the manuscript or study design that need to be addressed or may make the work unsuitable for publication
  2. If possible, indicating what the authors would need to change in order to qualify for publication

How do you give feedback that is honest, constructive, and meaningful--without being too severe or nit-picking? Here are a few tips to help put your comments in perspective and balance the critical and constructive aspects of peer review.

Honor the authors’ intention. Evaluate the research on its own terms. The authors may not have asked the same research question you would have; they might have structured the study differently from how you would have done it; reading the manuscript might give you ideas for follow-up experiments--and all of that is okay. As long as the methodology and analysis are objectively scientifically valid.

Differentiate between essential and “nice-to-have.” As you write your review, clearly highlight serious potential flaws that could make the study unreliable, as opposed to minor questions and concerns, aesthetic improvements or suggestions for future investigation.

Take a step back. When you’re analyzing scientific work, details are important--so it’s easy to become absorbed in the minutiae. Once you’ve assembled your detailed feedback, take a moment to reread your comments. Do any of the problems stem from the same root cause? Can you spot unifying themes or patterns in the issues you’ve identified?

Question your own objectivity. We all have a unique perspective, with implicit biases and beliefs. As a peer reviewer, think carefully about the preconceived notions you bring with you to the peer review process and question your own assumptions in order to evaluate the work fairly and objectively.


Crafting a constructive and objective review takes time and effort, but there are some simple tips you can bear in mind to keep your review focused and make it a positive experience for everyone involved:

  • First and foremost, have the journal’s publication criteria at the front of your mind. This will help you to concentrate your attention on the aspects of the manuscript about which the editor really needs your feedback.
  • Don’t copyedit the manuscript- if there are language issues, include a general comment about this rather than listing errors line-by-line.
  • Try to approach the process with an open mind and treat it as an opportunity for you to learn as well as applying your expertise.
  • Finally, do your best to put yourself in the author’s shoes. Make sure you use clear language, a fair and neutral tone, and provide a clear explanation of the revisions you expect the authors to make.
Jamie Males
Jamie Males
Senior Editor, PLOS ONE
It’s okay to recommend rejection
Your first responsibility as a peer reviewer is to help ensure the integrity of the scientific record. Don’t hesitate to recommend rejection when it’s appropriate. Just take a moment to consider your own assumptions, and be clear about your reasons in the review.
When in doubt
Follow the golden rule: Write the type of review you’d want to receive if you were the author.


Got questions about peer review, publishing, Open Science...or something else?

Ask us on email or twitter or send your question anonymously through our survey. We’d love to include it in a future issue of the Peer Review Toolbox.

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