The time will come when you are asked to review a manuscript for a journal. This may happen after having published one, two or more papers… You receive an e-mail from an editor of a journal asking if you would please review a manuscript. The first reaction you’ll probably have is “Am I qualified to review a paper?” You consider your qualifications; the hard work you’ve been doing, your CV and record. At this time you think, maybe I can do this… I know the subject and it would be an interesting experience. You therefore send the response that you will gladly review the paper. You have now achieved a new status for a scientist; not only published author, but reviewer! With this title comes great responsibility; somebody’s hopes of having their paper published lie in your hands, and probably one or two other reviewers.
You receive the review package; the manuscript and files for your comments and decision. Now what? How to start a review? What do I do? How do I get it right? I suggest be honest and try not to be mean. I start by first reading the manuscript through. This way you get a handle on what they are doing and what the paper is about. I leave it for a day to let the information sink in. I return to it and check simple things for sloppiness; things like missed references, bad referencing, abstract doesn’t follow conclusions, appropriate spelling and grammar… If the authors were sloppy here, there may be a problem with the overall paper. Of course you could be wrong and they may just have difficulty writing. I then read it over again making sure everything makes sense and go through each section with a fine tooth comb. In my head I try to answer: has the question been answered? Has the question been answered appropriately? Are the methods that they used good to answer the question? Is the statistical analysis, if done and necessary, appropriate? Do their conclusions follow what the results show? I leave it again for a day. When I get back to it the last time, it’s another read-through to make sure I haven’t missed anything. By this time, I pretty much know whether I will accept, accept with revision or reject a paper. But I still have to write my comments. I look through the notes I have made throughout my review process and the impressions I had from the last read through and start formulating my comments.
I usually put my comments in point form sentences. Every point is about an issue or praise for the paper. If the paper is good, which I hope it is, it is much easier and less time consuming. If you decide that the paper either needs major revisions or is rejected; then you have to present your case why more work needs to be done. Your explanations need not be mean, they should be encouraging. The entire process usually takes me about a week or two to complete for a 10 page paper.
As a student you don’t get a chance to review many papers, but it’s nice to able to do it once in a while. I know that once you have a real research job, you are asked to review and tend to review many papers. I guess as students we should enjoy the fact that we are not inundated by requests.