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The current culture of science thrives on peer review – that is, the willingness of your colleagues to read through your work, critique it, and thereby improve it. Science magazine recently collected a slew of tips on how to review papers, which give people getting started in the process of peer reviewing some lovely overarching strategies about how to prepare a review.
But how can you keep in your head all those pieces of good advice and apply them to the specifics of a paper in front of you? I’d argue that like many human endeavors, it’s impossible. There are too many complexities in each paper to collate loads of disparate recommendations and keep them straight in your head. To that end, I’ve created a template for reviewing papers our lab either puts out or critiques. Not incidentally, I highly recommend using your lab group as a first round of review before sending papers out for review, as even the greenest RA can parse the paper for problems in logic and comprehensibility (inculding teh dreded “tpyoese”).
To help my lab out in doing this, I’ve prepared the following template. It organizes questions I typically have about various pieces of manuscripts, and I’ve found that undergrads given nice reviews with its help. In particular, I find it helps them focus on things beyond the analytic details to which they may have not been exposed so that they don’t feel so overwhelmed. It may also be helpful for more experienced reviewers to judge what they could contribute as a reviewer in an unfamiliar topic or analytical approach. I encourage my lab members to copy and paste it verbatim when they draft their feedback, so please do the same if it’s useful to you!
Summarize in a sentence or two the strengths of the manuscript. Summarize in a sentence or two the chief weaknesses of the manuscript that must be addressed.
How coherent, crisp, and focused is the literature summary? Are all the studies discussed relevant to the topic at hand?
Are there important pieces of literature that are omitted? If so, note what they are, and provide full citations at the end of the review.
Does the literature summary flow directly into the questions posed by this study? Are their hypotheses clearly laid out?
Are the participants’ ages, sexes, and ethnic/racial distribution reasonably characterized? Is it clear from what population the sample is drawn? Are any criteria used to exclude participants from overall analyses clearly specified?
Are the measures described in brief but with enough data so that the naive reader knows what to expect? Are there internal consistency or other reliability statistics presented for inventories and other measures that can have these presented?
For any experimental task, is it described in sufficient detail to allow a naive reader to replicate the task and understand how it works? Are all critical experimental measures and dependent variables clearly explained?
Was the procedure sufficiently detailed to allow you to know what the experience was like from the perspective of the participant? Could you rerun the study with this description and that provided above of the measures and tasks?
Is each step that the authors took to get from raw data to the data that were analyzed laid out plainly? Are particular equipment settings, scoring algorithms, or the like described in sufficient detail that you could take the authors’ data and get out exactly what they analyzed?
Do the authors specify the analyses they used to test all of their hypotheses? Are those analytic tools proper to use given their research design and data at hand? Are any post hoc analyses properly described as such? Is the criterion used for statistical significance given? What measure of effect size do the authors report? Does there appear to be adequate power to test the effects of interest? Do the authors report what software they used to analyze their data?
How easily can you read the Results section? How does it flow from analysis to analysis, and from section to section? Do the authors use appropriate references to tables and/or figures to clarify the patterns they discuss?
How correct are the statistics? Are they correctly annotated in tables and/or figures? Do the degrees of freedom match up to what they should based on what’s reported in the Method section?
Do the authors provide reasonable numbers to substantiate the verbal descriptions they use in the text?
If differences among groups or correlations are given, are there actual statistical tests performed that assess these differences, or do the authors simply rely on results falling on either side of a line of statistical significance?
If models are being compared, are the fit indexes both varied in their domains they assess (e.g., error of approximation, percentage of variance explained relative to a null model, containing more information given the number of parameters) and interpreted appropriately?
Are all the findings reported on in the Results mentioned in the Discussion?
Does the discussion contextualize the findings of this study back into the broader literature in a way that flows, is sensible, and appropriately characterizes the findings and the state of the literature? If any relevant citations are missing, again give the full citation at the end of the review
How reasonable is the authors’ scope in the Discussion? Do they exceed the boundaries of their data substantially at any point?
What limitations of the study do the authors acknowledge? Are there major ones they omitted?
Are compelling future directions given for future research? Are you left with a sense of the broader impact of these findings beyond the narrow scope of this study?
REFERENCES FOR THIS REVIEW (only if you cited articles beyond what the authors already included in the manuscript)