peer reviewing your first paper


Patter now has over 800 posts. It’s pretty hard to find things on here, even when you know what you’re looking for. Some of the elderly posts are, I hope, still useful. I’ve decided to start an occasional ‘best of’ set of posts – well best of in my view – to recover some material that I still get asked about.

In 2012 I wrote three blog posts about how to review a journal article.

The first post was about how to read a journal article you have been asked to review. What do you look for and how do you decide what might need to be done?

I started by saying this:

Before even beginning to read, the first thing to get clear about is the STANCE you have to take as a reviewer.

Once you’ve clicked ‘agree to review’ and you have the article in your inbox, you now have to put aside all of those debates about whether blind peer refereeing is a good or a bad thing, or whether it’s here to stay or on the way out. You’ve got the article and you need to do a good job. The author(s) has spent a piece of their life writing it, they have put their faith in the reviewing system – that’s you – and there is probably a lot riding on whether it gets published.

The job of reviewing is about deciding whether the paper is of sufficient quality to be published, not whether it ‘s the most ground-breaking piece of research you’ve ever come across. And you have to read the text, not as if it’s the paper you would have written if you’d done this bit of research, but rather as the research and writing that has been done.

This is reviewing as an appreciative critical stance, rather than one which is dominated by

I offered a four stage process for reading and twelve questions that could be used to guide the reading process.

The second post looked at the process of making a judgment about what the writer needed to do. And it addressed the thorny question of what to recommend to the editor. I started by looking at what reasons we might have to reject a paper:

Aside from the obvious things – it’s a rant not a reasoned piece of argument, it’s a piece of journalism, it’s a blog, it’s been sent to the wrong journal , it’s plagiarised – here are some possible reasons for rejection:

(1) It’s straight from a thesis chapter – it’s a trawl of the literature, has far too much to say about methodology and/or theoretical resources, has no argument and no conclusion
(2) It’s bad research – the quants are wrong, the interpretation of the qual data is dodgy, you can drive a truck through the claims made
(3) There is no analysis – it’s a plodding report of a survey or a set of interviews and nothing else
(4) It’s unethical – people may be harmed if this is published, it’s sexist/racist/homophobic/ableist
(5) It’s got too many ideas in it – you can’t follow what is being said at all, there isn’t enough space devoted to each part of the argument, the various bits don’t seem to relate to one another
(6) The argument doesn’t make sense – you can’t follow what is being said at all, there isn’t enough space devoted to each part of the argument, the various bits don’t seem to relate to one another
(7) It’s not significant – there is no answer to the So What question. That is, it’s too local, it’s too small in scope to say anything… it’s naracisstic and self-indulgent, and/or the conclusion is what we already know and there are heaps of other articles which say the same thing and/or it doesn’t seem to say anything much at all.

We ought not to reject something because it’s written in a style we don’t like or it uses big words or we disagree with its party politics. We can raise all of these objections as reasoned arguments in a response which might, in the case of party politics, require revision to recognise different points of view.

We also ought not to reject something just because it’s boring. Again, that’s for revision, unless the reasons for it being boring are any of (1) – (7) above.

I then went on to look at how we might decide what level of revisions might be required.

The third post looked at how to write helpful feedback . I suggested there were four things that mattered when writing feedback: (1) Write the kind of comments you expect to get; (2) Use a structure for the feedback which allows the author to follow what you are saying; (3) Be clear and (4) Don’t tell them to read all your work – unless you really ARE the key figure in the field.

Here’s what I said about structured feedback.

Remember that the author/s now know that they need to do more, so they are reading with a sinking heart. So you need to be specific as well as kind.

I generally aim for three quarters to a page in length, unless it is an accept without change – this is usually just a paragraph or two saying what I think is great about the paper.

I have a bit of a formula I use for reviews. So here’s what I do – it’s not the only way to write feedback of course, but it’s ONE way to approach the task.

(1) Write two to four sentences summarising what the paper is about. So something like… This paper addresses… and presents evidence that … . The author/s argue that… This gives the author the chance to see whether you have understood what they wanted to say. If you haven’t got it, they can then consider how they might have produced this misreading.

(2) If you really enjoyed reading the article, say so now before you start with the concerns.

(3) Write something about the contribution, as in… The article clearly makes a contribution to/has the potential to add to what we know about/will make a significant addition to … This might be linked to a caveat such as… but needs further work in order to bring this to fruition/realise its potential, needs some revision in order to achieve this.

(4) Then, if there are suggested revisions, say whether they are major or minor and how many there are, as in .. I have two suggestions for major revisions and one more minor point… or I offer some issues that the author/s needs to consider in the methodological section and a recommendation for some restructuring of the findings…

(5) Then dispassionately state the changes that you think are necessary, based on your reading of the article. Try to focus on the things that are the most fundamental.

You may just outline the problem (s) and suggest that the author/s needs to find a way of resolving it/them. You might offer one or two suggestions. Or you might have something very definite in mind. Any of these is OK, although just outlining the problem can be a bit scary for the author/s when they come to revise. Whatever, you just need to be explicit about which of these you are doing.

If there is reading that the author/s need to do, give them the references, don’t just say there is literature out there that they ought to know about.

If you are suggesting major revisions, then there probably isn’t much point in outlining twenty five specific things for the author/s to do; it’s the big bits that are the most important for the author/s to grasp. Too much detail and they will be completely confused/overwhelmed/dispirited. And if it’s major revisions you will get another look at the paper, at which time you can pick up any small things that still need resolution.

Finally, succintly list any grammatical, proofing and referencing problems.

(6) Conclude with some encouragement. This might involve repeating the potential contribution and the importance/value of the author/s continuing to work on the piece.

You might want to follow up these posts in full.


Photo by D A V I D S O N L U N A on Unsplash




About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, feedback, journal article, peer review, refereeing, reviewing, reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to peer reviewing your first paper

  1. Thanks Prof Thomson. As usual, some really useful advice and encouragement. I have done quite a few reviews, now, across a number of journals. My approach is two-fold, and always underpinned by the old adage “Honey goes down easier than vinegar”! For a micro-level approach, I actually make detailed comments using “Comment” facility, in pdf edit. I can then attach the file, when I write the macro-level comments, on the official review feedback site. It has been my constant practice to copy every thing I say to the Author(s) as well as the Journal Editor. I don’t like the idea of saying something behind the back of the Author(s) that I couldn’t say face on.

    But what I find difficult – especially when there are three reviewers – is when I recommend an acceptance, with a proviso of a minor or major review, and one other review is of a similar mind, but the editor goes with the only one saying “reject”! This makes it so disheartening for people who have put so much time and effort in writing the article in the first place, not to be given the chance of corrections!

    Thank goodness we are not so “harsh” on doctoral candidates in examination, otherwise very few would get through!

    Kind regards,


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