Knowledge translation and dissemination is a critical and typically ultimate step in the life cycle of a research project before the work ideally goes on to influence paradigms, policies, and practices. Such knowledge is generally communicated in both written and oral formats through dissemination tools including abstract presentation at scientific conferences; lay-language print, news, and social media; webinars, podcasts, and other continuing education events; and, most commonly, publication in a scientific journal. Fundamental to the production of such academic deliverables – or, as some would say, “academic currency” – is objective peer-review, wherein members of the larger community within one’s sphere of competence and expertise evaluate the suitability of the knowledge product for dissemination. As the Editor-in-Chief of the BMC journal Tropical Diseases, Travel Medicine and Vaccines (www.tdtmvjournal.com), and Associate Editor/Editorial Board member of several other scientific journals, I am frequently asked by trainees across academic levels for guidance on how to peer review a manuscript. Thus, I have developed the approach below based on my own personal experience as an author, ad-hoc peer-reviewer, editorial board member, and editor. The approach reflects my own opinions, which should be construed as neither endorsed nor shared by my employer or professional affiliations. I hope that trainees find this guidance helpful!
The first step after agreeing to serve as a peer-reviewer, is to organize questions and tasks into discrete work packages. For a manuscript reporting the findings of an original research project – the most common article type that you are likely to be invited to review – your work packages will usually constitute a critique of the paper’s: writing, presentation, organization, and flow; originality, scientific accuracy, and potential impact; and suitability for the particular audience that you are representing as a peer-reviewer. Elements of the paper to consider through that critical lens include: study design, hypothesis, and objectives; data collection and analysis; and, synthesis of findings and interpretation. The work packages and elements can then be conceived as a matrix, into which your article-specific questions will fit. A sample matrix with near-universal questions to be answered through peer-review of an original research article is provided below:
|Elements||Work Packages - Critiques of:|
|Writing, presentation, organization, and flow||Originality, scientific accuracy, and potential impact||Suitability for journal's audience|
|Study design, hypothesis, objectives (key sections include Title, Abstract, Introduction)||
|Data collection and analysis (key sections include Methods and Results)||
|Synthesis of findings and interpretation (key sections include Discussion / Conclusions and References)||
Having this kind of an approach to peer-review will enable you to complete your assignments in an organized, efficient manner, and arm you with a fighting chance of meeting the laughable deadlines imposed at the editorial level. Sticking to the approach will also prevent you from getting sucked into the trap of policing formatting, correcting minor typographical errors, and identifying grammatical calamities. This is what copy-editors do. Your job is to identify areas for improvement to structure, form, content, and interpretation in as objective a manner as possible. Threats to one’s objectivity include current or past collaborative or adversarial relationships with the authorship; shared workplace with one or more listed authors; financial conflicts of interest; time pressure; and, quite importantly, implicit and explicit biases. Consideration and recognition of factors that might imperil your objectivity are incumbent upon you as a scientist with integrity. Mitigation strategies to be executed in advance of agreeing to the peer-review assignment include: detailed review of the authorship (if unblinded); allocation of sufficient time to complete the review by blocking one’s calendar; quick review of the article’s abstract (often provided) for red flags around possible financial or other conflicts of interest; and completion of implicit bias testing and/or training. One such implicit bias tool is the Harvard Implicit Association Test, which can be found at: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit. Peer-reviewers should also be mindful of the fact that authors from low- and middle-income countries are at a natural disadvantage when it comes to publishing in the English language literature. This is why much scientific knowledge housed in equatorial parts of the world lives in anecdotal, oral historical, and unpublished form. If the manuscript is of potential high quality but requires editing for English, so state that in your review; it is not your job to rewrite the paper, but inherent disadvantage due to language barrier should not preclude a solid piece of science from appearing in the peer-reviewed literature.
Additional resources that will assist you as you develop your peer-reviewing skills are listed below. Participation in the peer-review process should be viewed as an opportunity to return a valuable service to your scientific community and to improve your own writing, data representation, and communication skills. Being invited to peer-review the work of colleagues is both an honour and a privilege, and is foundational to the social contract of life as an academic. You will be a better scientist for it!
Peer Review Process: https://www.biomedcentral.com/getpublished/peer-review-process
International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) “Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals”: