This is a guest post by Dr Rebecca Kirk, Executive Editor, Nature Partner Journals
Every day, thousands of scientists around the world donate their spare hours as peer reviewers to help colleagues (and competitors!) improve their work. But unkindness does exist too (as you can see from the emergence of Facebook groups such as Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped…) and we all have a role to play in making it a kinder, more-productive process. As an editor, I have seen the full gamut of reviews, from unhelpful one-liners, through useful assessment of the work that highlights deficits and provides solutions to help the authors transform their paper, to unrealistic demands that go far beyond the scope of the paper under scrutiny.
There is a lot of comment out there on what makes a good scientific review, but what basic tenets of peer review could we agree to sign up to if we all wanted to make science a kinder place? Importantly, all parties involved in peer review need to remember that there are people behind the science. A publication is the outcome of hard work and time away from loved ones or much-loved leisure pursuits; for some, there are hopes, dreams and grants at stake. Fair, fast, thorough and impartial assessment is needed to ensure the wheels of research keep spinning.
Firstly, what can editors do? We can be transparent in our processes and keep authors informed. We can ensure we contact the best people to review a paper, and we can endeavour to provide a fast, fair decision, with guidance regarding the peer review reports and how authors might address the comments. We should ensure that we invite reviewers who represent the full spectrum of researchers. We should look for ways to support authors and referees in a continuously changing publishing landscape and to improve the peer review process by trialling new approaches that could help speed up peer review.
What can authors do? Please consider your readers, taking into account non-native English speakers, and ensure that your manuscript is written in clear and straightforward language and avoids scientific jargon. Please describe your research without any hype. Also, consider that readers may not be well versed in the methods you are using, and they likely do not have time to read up on previous research for context, so please include all essential details in your paper. When drafting display items, remember that some readers may be colour-blind or partially sighted. The data you created or used during the project should be clearly listed, and provided for review. Finally, please do complete the checklists provided by the journal; they are designed to make the editorial process go smoothly, to help identify issues early, and to make research reproducible – not as hurdles to overcome.
What can reviewers do? Please only agree to review papers that you are confident that you will be able to assess thoroughly and within the timeline requested. If you intend to ask an early career researcher to perform the review for you, please ask the journal to invite them directly so that they can start to build their own CV. If at any time you realize that you have a conflict of interest, please let the editor know and excuse yourself from acting as a referee. Please assess the paper you are looking at – not the person. Each new submission must be assessed on its own merits. If you are not sure what an insightful review report looks like, check out journals that publish peer review reports or take part in journal clubs that assess preprints.
Last but not least, thank you to all of those authors and reviewers I have worked with who have shown how supportive and constructive peer review can be. Papers shepherded through this process come out improved, more insightful and with clear direction for future research projects for the benefit of all.