Length of Your Review

A question posed to me recently asked about the best length for a manuscript review. Let me quote from the email:

“On one side of the spectrum is a group of people that will only comment if something is blatantly wrong. On the other side of the spectrum is the reviewer that will give a lengthy response including all of the changes that could improve the study (or at least as improve the study in the eyes of the reviewer).”

Neither of these extremes is optimal. A very short, highly negative review is particularly bad but close behind is a very short, highly positive review. The more details I have, the better that I can assess the manuscript and weigh the recommendations from the two reviewers. So, in general, I like longer reviews. Reviewers can, actually, go too far, suggesting additional studies and analysis that might be very good to conduct but are not necessary for publication of the submitted manuscript. To me, an optimal review includes praise of the good parts of the paper, identification of what is wrong or unclear, and suggestions for what will make the study publishable.

As I said in one of my first posts on this blog, please be thorough – I like the longer reviews better than the short ones. If you need to write several paragraphs to explain why some aspect of the study is off base, then please do it. That helps me make the right decision about the manuscript.

The main place that I find reviewers being too verbose is with suggested new work. If you write two paragraphs on how the authors should really include another section, then please stop and ask yourself: is this new section that I am asking for necessary to make the submitted manuscript acceptable for publication? If not, then your two paragraphs are really a suggestion for future work. Such suggestions are fine but it should be noted as such. If not noted, then Editors and authors assume that it is a recommendation for acceptability, and authors should either do it or write a thorough rebuttal as to why they didn’t do it.

At the AGU reviewer resources page, the text begins with the main goal of peer review:

“AGU Publications relies on our reviewers to help ensure the standards, quality, and significance of our papers.”

Ensuring the standards, quality, and significance of papers in AGU journals is, I think, best served by identifying those elements of the manuscript that make it fall short of being a “significant contribution to the field.” A terse report, positive or negative, is less than fully helpful to me as an Editor. Similarly, it is useful to expand, at least somewhat, on the positive elements of the manuscript that raise it to the level of acceptability.

Down the page a bit is this definition of a good review:

“In general, the most helpful review is one which first provides an overall summary of the main contribution of the paper and its appropriateness for the journal and summarizes what major items should be addressed in revision.”

I agree. A very brief summary of the paper is always appreciated, not only for the Editor but also for the authors, so that they know that you understood the main point of the paper. Positive comments on the appropriateness for the journal are good, too, especially if the other reviewer finds fault with the same aspect of the manuscript. While many reviews include these elements, a large percentage of reviews do not, instead jumping in to the negative comments. Having these two other elements, a neutral paragraph reiterating the main point of the paper and a positive paragraph highlighting what is good about it, also helps to set a cordial tone to the report, which is always a good thing, in my view.

I like the figure in the Eos article about writing a good review, linked on this page.

peerreviewguide-flowchart

It highlights that the first things a reviewer should write are these two elements, the summary and the positive aspects of the paper. Then move on to the concerns and suggestions.

This page also has a link to another page with the lists of questions and pull-down menus that reviewers will be asked as part of the submission of their report. This is not the full list of all things to consider in your review, but these are the questions that AGU would like to see answered about every manuscript sent out for peer review. Explanations of the answers to these questions should also be in the main text of the review.

So, longer reviews are, in general, better for the Editor. Just take this advice with some caution, however, and think twice about suggestions for new work. Make it clear in the report which suggestions are, in your view, simply possibilities for future investigations and which are recommendations for acceptability.

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