Reviewing a manuscript requires many skills. Of capital importance is that you have enough background knowledge to be able to assess and comment on the science presented in the paper you are evaluating. But how do you communicate your comments back to the authors? How should you phrase your report? Below are some tips on what to watch out for when writing a reviewer report.
Keep it simple. Don’t forget that for many authors English is not their native language. Write your report so that it can also be easily understood by non-native English speakers. Short and clearly structured sentences will help you get your message across. Furthermore, carefully think about word usage. Using complex and unusual words might obscure the meaning. It is not helpful if authors have to consult a dictionary to understand your report.
Proverbs and colloquial language may also pose problems and should therefore be avoided. Moreover, keep in mind that it is not always easy to recognize sarcasm in written form, without the possibility of seeing gestures or facial expressions. Sarcasm may also be received and judged differently depending on the cultural background of a person. Consequently, sarcasm is also a form of expression that should not find its way into a reviewer report.
Be constructive, not destructive. Formulate your comments in a positive, constructive way. Simply damning a manuscript will neither be helpful for the editor who has to make a decision based on the reviewer comments nor for the author. Be direct, especially if you request additional experiments. Use wording that makes it clear which experiments are absolutely necessary and which would simply be nice additions.
Be objective, not subjective. Reviewing a manuscript means that you will also have negative comments for the author(s). Even if you feel strongly about certain shortcomings of a manuscript, remember to voice your criticisms in a courteous way using neutral, objective language. Stay professional and do not convey the impression that you, the reviewer, are a know-it-all while the authors have no clue. Many journals also offer the possibility to enter confidential comments to the editor. While these should be kept to a minimum they will give you the possibility to voice your personal opinions.
Don’t use offensive language. Keep in mind that you are evaluating the science and not the person who wrote the paper. Accusatory, derogatory or even libelous language should be avoided. Editors will normally not edit reviewer reports. The reports will usually be sent to the authors as they are submitted. On rare occasions, however, an editor might choose to remove offensive language.
Authors should also pause before reacting emotionally to the language in a reviewer report. Just as the reviewer should remember that the author is not necessarily a native English speaker, the author should assume the same of the reviewer when reading a report. Criticism expressed in robust language is not necessarily unfair. Tolerance and good will on both sides will be beneficial in the communication between reviewers and authors and will ultimately help to improve a manuscript.
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