How to write a referee report
In this section we will outline the important steps involved in preparing and writing a referee report.
The aim of your report is to help the journal to decide if the work is suitable to publish. It also helps the authors improve the manuscript before it is published.
When you receive a paper
When you receive a referee request you should ask yourself the following questions:
1. Am I an expert?
Do you know the field well enough to be able to assess the
- novelty of the research
- quality of the research
- impact and importance of the research
If the answer to any of these questions is "no" then you should decline the task and tell the journal that this is not your area of expertise.
2. Will I be able to meet the deadline?
Can you prepare a report in a reasonable amount of time? Some reports take longer than others depending on how complex the work is. The authors will want a decision as soon as possible.
It is OK to ask for more time if you need it or even to decline a request if you are already working on several referee tasks. In that case, it is very helpful if you can suggest alternative referees.
3. Do I have a conflict of interest?
If you are a colleague of the authors, helped with this research or are in direct competition with the authors you should not review this work. See the ethical section in this guide for more information.
You should let the journal know as soon as possible if you can or cannot report. Give the journal a realistic time frame for preparing your report. If anything is unclear, ask the journal to explain or give you more information.
Important things to remember
- Keep it confidential
- Do not contact the authors
- Be objective: review the research, not the researcher
Steps in forming an opinion
It is important to understand the aims, scope and impact of the journal before assessing the paper. Therefore, you should begin by reading any letters and forms you have received. There may be specific journal guidelines, including information on the scope of the journal, which you should also read. These should be available online but if you cannot find them you can ask the journal for a copy of the guidelines. The guidelines may be different depending on the kind of article you have been asked to review, e.g. Letters or Fast Track Communications may have different criteria to Papers. You should then read the manuscript with these instructions and guidelines in mind.
When assessing a paper, you should ask yourself the following questions:
Is the work understandable and correct?
- Is it clear what the authors are trying to achieve?
- Are there sufficient references to provide background and put the work in context?
- Are the results backed up with evidence? Are there any unsupported claims?
- Is the work correct? Are there any errors, flaws or mistakes in the manuscript?
- Are the mathematics or statistics correct?
- Do you understand the work?
Is the work novel and interesting?
- Are the results interesting?
- Is the research important? Do the authors explain why it is important or how it advances our understanding of the field?
- Is the work original? Does it contain new material? Have any parts of the manuscript been published before?
- How relevant is this work to researchers in your field? Would it be beneficial to get an opinion from a researcher in another field?
- Is this only an incremental advance over previous work?
Is the work well presented?
- Does the title reflect the contents of the article?
- Does the abstract contain the essential information of the article?
- Are the figures and tables correct and informative? Are there too many, or too few?
- Does the conclusion summarize what has been learned and why it is interesting and useful?
- Is it clear?
- Is the manuscript an appropriate length?
You should consider all of these questions when you assess a manuscript. It is important to give as complete and thorough a report as possible.
Writing your report
All journals are slightly different but a referee request is usually made up of two parts: a form for you to fill in and a comment box for more detailed remarks. You will need to complete all the forms and answer all the questions asked by the journal.
Start your report by briefly summarising the purpose and results of the paper. This shows the authors and Editors of the journal that you have read and understood the work. In addition it is a useful summary of the results for the Editors.
It is especially important to:
- give your opinion of the level of interest and novelty of the work
- provide full references to earlier work if you believe the research does not add anything new
- be clear about what is needed to bring a paper up to the required quality standards for publication, if you think the work could eventually be published
- be specific about what is particularly interesting or good about a paper
- be specific in any criticism. Do not just say “This result is wrong” but say why it is wrong: “This result is wrong because…” for example “the following assumptions are invalid” or “they neglected this important factor” or “their method of collecting or analysing data is flawed” etc.
- clearly discuss any changes that you feel should be made to the manuscript
- include details of any references that the authors neglected to include or any of the references that are inaccurate
- be professional and polite in your report. Do not make personal comments or criticize the authors individually.
Is the English understandable?
There is no need to correct every spelling or grammatical error in the paper. However, it is helpful to point out where the scientific meaning is unclear.
Finally you should make a recommendation to the journal. The Editors of the journal will decide whether to reject, accept or reassess the work after changes are made based on the reports and recommendations of the referee(s).
- send your report on or before the agreed deadline
- keep the journal informed about the progress of the report
- follow the instructions sent from the journal
- contact the journal if you have any questions
- give examples to make your meaning clear
- comment on what is interesting, important, novel or significant about the work (if anything)
- be unbiased and objective
- do nothing! If you are unable or unwilling to referee the paper tell the journal.
- agree to report but then fail to send it. Instead ask for more time or let the journal know you can no longer report.
- contact the authors under any circumstances. If you have a question for the authors, ask the journal to forward it.
- make statements/claims about the work without providing an explanation and evidence
- personally criticize any of the authors
- recommend accepting or rejecting the paper without giving reasons