A beginner’s guide to peer review: Part One

How do you make decisions about whether or not to peer review an article? And where do you start? We discuss the ins and outs in the first of a series of step-by-step guides for the novice peer reviewer.


You’ve been invited to peer review a manuscript. To reach this stage in your career you must have received many peer reviewers’ comments on your work. No doubt you experience a warm glow of satisfaction as you realise that now, at last, someone considers you to be an expert in your own right. It’s your turn to pass judgment on somebody else’s work.

If you have never peer reviewed before, once the warm glow has worn off you may well be left feeling a bit lost and daunted. Scientists don’t usually get any formal training on how to peer review. You have to rely on what you’ve read, observed, and your own experiences of peer reviewers’ comments on your own work.

Now it’s your turn to peer review in your own right. If you want to do a good job, there are a few places you can turn to for help.

The Sense about Science guide for early career researchers is an excellent source of information about peer review and includes some advice on what to look out for when peer reviewing. Although there are lots of general tips and advice available, it is difficult to translate general advice into a useful, detailed peer review report, especially if you have never done it independently before.

This series of blogs aims to help the novice peer reviewer by providing comprehensive and detailed advice on how to conduct peer review.

So, first things first, you’ve been invited to peer review a manuscript. What should you do next? Read on…

When to accept an invitation to peer review

The primary aim for a journal when it asks for peer review reports is to determine a manuscript’s suitability for publication. For authors, peer review provides credibility and might improve their manuscript while, more generally, peer review can help to maintain standards of scientific quality.

When you receive an invitation to peer review a manuscript, you’ll need to consider various factors before you decide whether to accept.

Practically, this means that when an editor considers a submission to their journal, they will ask two or more people that have relevant expertise and experience to examine and comment on the study.

The editor wants to know whether the research presented in the manuscript is scientifically ‘sound’ – that is, is the design (or methodology) of the study appropriate for the aims of the study, are the assumptions made valid, and are the conclusions supported by the results?

In addition, the editor might want to know whether the work submitted is novel, interesting or likely to have any impact.

When you receive an invitation to peer review a manuscript, you’ll need to consider various factors before you decide whether to accept.

Firstly, look at the journal scope…

  • Do you understand the publishing model of the journal?  – Is it open access, or subscription based? If open access, is peer review ‘open’  (your identity will be known to the authors and  your report may be published), will the article be published first (post-publication peer review)?
  • Do you understand the ethos of the journal? – What is the journal aiming to achieve, what are its ideals and beliefs?
  • Do you understand the journal threshold? – How interesting and novel must a piece of work be to be published there?

Then take a look at the journal guide for reviewers…

  • Do you understand the form or checklist you are required to complete?
  • Do you have enough time to peer review within the given deadline.
  • Are you qualified to peer review the manuscript? – Does the subject of the work align with your own background?
  • Are you free from any competing interests that preclude you from peer reviewing this work? – This could be anything that affects your ability to make a fair and unbiased judgement of the work.

Tick_PixabayIf you can answer ‘yes’ to all of the questions above, you can go ahead and accept the invitation.

If you do decide to decline, explain your reasons to the editor. If they understand your reason for declining, they’ll know whether to invite you to review again in the future.


– If anything is unclear, you can contact the journal to ask for clarification before you commit yourself.

– Try to respond quickly to any invitations to review so that the Editors can invite others if you are unable to help.

Look out for the next blog in this series, which will cover how to begin the peer reviewing process.

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Stefan Washietl

Your very first point is “do you understand the publishing model? – is it open access or subscription based?”

How does this affect the decision to take on a review? Should it?

Jigisha Patel

Hi Stefan,

Thank you for flagging this point. It could have been phrased more clearly.
There is currently a lot of innovation and experimentation with peer review and a move towards more transparency regarding the peer review process, particularly amongst open access journals. Some will publish peer review reports alongside the published article and the reports won’t be anonymous. Some publish the article first and then invite peer review (post-publication peer review). Potential peer reviewers should be aware of this before they decide whether to agree or not. This is much better than withdrawing after accepting an invitation because they didn’t realised the journal operates open peer review.

The wording has been amended to make this clearer.


Elfatih Malik

With regards to the question (are you qualified to peer review the manuscript? ) …the first thing jump to mind may be the reviewer specialty eg medicine or surgery or epidemiology or malaria but I think the reviewer knowledge and experience in research methods is more important as any defect in the design is seriously affecting the conclusion

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