How to Peer-Review Academic Papers

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Peer reviewing is a crucial part of academic publishing. It helps ensure a high level of academic integrity, with papers rigorously reviewed by other experts in the field to guarantee that the written works and the studies they present are as robust as possible. This helps identify any blind spots or biases the authors may have, and peers may also pick up on errors or ambiguities that could tarnish the reputation of a study.

If you’re peer-reviewing a colleague’s paper, you’re providing your expert opinion to help journal editors determine the quality of the submission and giving valuable feedback to help the authors improve their manuscript. You’re playing a key role in the academic ecosystem, but this task can be nerve-racking, especially when you’re new to peer-reviewing.

If this is your first time writing a peer review, you’re likely both excited and anxious about serving as a subject expert for a journal. It’s an honor to have your academic prowess held in such high regard, but your peer review can determine the future of this study, and that level of power can feel overwhelming. For those new to the process, we’ve outlined the components of a typical peer review and provided some quick tips for writing a peer review that’s helpful to both the editor and the author.

If you’re being asked to peer-review, you likely have an impressive academic career. In case you’ve penned a paper that needs editing before submission, reach out to our expert academic editors for the final touches to your manuscript.

What does a peer review include?

There’s not really a one-size-fits-all peer review template as each journal has its own specifications. However, peer reviews do tend to follow a basic pattern. Below are the sections that make up a typical peer review, but make sure you always check the journal’s specific requirements before you start.


In the first part of a peer review, you provide a short summary of the research and your general assessment of the paper. This is a basic overview where you present your most important insights about the paper, leaving more detailed criticism for later.

Summarizing the content of the study is also crucial since a clear summary shows the editor that subject experts can understand and interpret the paper. If you can’t adequately summarize the research, it indicates the manuscript is not ready for publication. Even if the study itself and the data derived from it are high quality and insightful, unless the paper is written in a way that properly conveys the content, it should be revised before publication.

In the summary, you’ll also share your overall impression of the paper, outlining its strengths and weaknesses and its suitability for the journal. At the very end of this section, you should state your recommendation. Do you recommend rejecting the manuscript? Accepting it as is? Accepting after major revisions? Minor revisions? Consider the journal’s goals, scope, and target audience and whether the paper is likely to align with its readers’ preferences and level of expertise.

Detailed evaluation

The next section is where you offer more detail and comment on specific elements of the paper, making sure to note where improvements are needed. While the summary provides the editor and the author(s) with valuable information about the potential reception of the work, the detailed evaluation features your solutions to improving the paper and its chances of success with the target readership.

The typical way to structure this section is to start with detailing the necessary major revisions or improvements and then work down to the minor ones. Major revisions are generally seen as substantive issues the author must address to make the paper publishable. For example, if there are issues with the factual content of the paper or errors in the analysis and interpretation of the results, the author may need to re-analyze the data and re-interpret the results to render the paper viable. Minor revisions, on the other hand, are those that may improve the overall quality of the paper but are not crucial, such as including additional citations to strengthen the study’s claims.

Peer reviews consider not only the factual content but also the quality of the writing. If the paper is unclear and hard to follow, it’s not ready for publication, regardless of how carefully the study was conducted or how ground-breaking the results are. A text riddled with typos and grammatical mistakes won’t uphold the high standards of the journal, even if the study itself is valuable. Make sure to evaluate all aspects of the paper.

Comments for the editor

While not all journals have this in peer reviews, some provide a section where reviewers can write confidential comments that only the editor will see, separating them from the comments that are available to both editor and author. This is the place to flag any bigger concerns, such as ethical issues with the paper. If your journal doesn’t allow you to leave comments for the editor alone, just keep in mind that the author will also be able to see all the comments you leave.

Tips for writing a great peer review

Obviously, your expertise in the subject matter is the most valuable thing you bring to the table as a reviewer. It’s this expertise that qualifies you to pass judgment on a peer’s work. However, subject matter expertise alone won’t make for a fruitful and insightful peer review. You want your feedback to be useful to both the editor and the author, and that’s not necessarily easy to pull off without practice. Here are a few tips for transforming a peer review from adequate to great.

  1. Justify your recommendation

You should provide sufficient arguments for your recommendation. Your comments should make it clear to the author and the editor why you gave the recommendation that you did. If you haven’t provided sufficient justification, clarify your thoughts on the matter—you may even come up with new insights.

  1. Recommend only practical changes

Any revisions you suggest must be reasonable. For example, recommending that a paper be accepted after revisions that necessitate collecting a large amount of new data is simply not feasible for the researcher, and suggesting they do so isn’t constructive. In such a case, it’s better to simply recommend rejecting the paper and explaining why you don’t think it is appropriate for publication. 

  1. Be respectful

Of course, there will be times when you need to critique a manuscript, but there’s a difference between politely noting where the research or writing could be improved and insulting someone’s work. For example, rather than commenting that the paper is “poorly written,” you can recommend that the author hire a copyeditor to improve its clarity. You can also highlight sections that are unclear or ambiguous and offer any tips you might have to help the author improve their writing skills. The point is to keep everything polite and respectful.

However, you don’t want to veer in the other direction and leave comments that are so watered-down as to be effectively useless. You want to be honest and fully prepared to offer potentially painful but necessary information but do so in a gentle and respectful manner.

  1. Include positive comments

Don’t hesitate to point out elements that are exciting, novel, or well-designed. Obviously, the author will appreciate it if you also provide positive feedback, not just a long list of critiques, but this type of information also helps the editor see the merits of the paper.

  1. Be specific

Vague comments won’t help the author improve their manuscript, so submit precisely worded feedback. The clearer and more detailed your comments, the more valuable they’ll prove to author and editor alike.

Write the review you’d want to read

When you’re writing a peer review, it’s crucial to be honest and thorough so the editor can understand whether the paper has merit and belongs in this particular journal. That said, there’s no need for overly harsh comments. Use professional language and give the author constructive criticism. A good general approach is to re-read your comments while imagining yourself on the receiving end of them. Putting yourself in the author’s shoes can help you word your comments in a way that conveys all the necessary information but hurts a bit less to read.

Being selected as a peer reviewer suggests that you have a successful academic career, and you’re most likely readying your own papers for publication. If you need help polishing your manuscripts, get in touch with our academic editors!

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