Peer reviewers and why we should learn to love them

Most scientific journals are peer reviewed and this is generally accepted as an indication of good quality, but what does it mean? The peer review process involves at least one and often two or more academics reading a manuscript critically before deciding whether it is suitable for publication. The reviewers have expertise relevant to the subject matter and are invited on this basis by the journal editor. They are unpaid and participate in the process with the aim of improving the quality of the body of published evidence in their field. Whether their aim is achieved should be the subject of another blog – for now let’s talk about the nature of the process, rather than its effectiveness.

Peer reviewers are unpaid and participate in the process with the aim of improving the quality of published evidence in their field. Click To Tweet

Peer review may be ‘double blind’ in which case the identity of the reviewers is unknown to the manuscript authors and the identity of the authors is unknown to the peer reviewers. The main advantage of this approach is that the reviewers are unable to make a conscious or unconscious judgement about the manuscript and the work it describes on the basis of the author or their institution. For example, when reading about work by well respected researchers based at an eminent university, the reviewer may form a positive view before even reading the work. In addition, reviewers can be confident that their comments about the manuscript will be anonymous and they can be entirely honest about its quality. Peer review may also be ‘single blind’, in which case the authors are identified but the reviewers are not. In this case, the possibility remains that the reviewer is biased by awareness of the authors’ identity or knowledge of the institution; however the reviewers can critique the manuscript without fear or favour. Most publications in eye and vision sciences use a single blind peer review approach, but some (e.g. Ophthalmology and Vision Science) use double blind review.

A good peer reviewer will provide very useful feedback to authors. Even if he/she feels that the manuscript is not of sufficient quality to be considered for publication, the feedback is likely to include comments and suggestions about the research methodology, the presentation of the results, and their interpretation. The feedback draws attention to flaws in the method or the logic that might have led to biased results and/or an unjustified conclusion. For example, a peer reviewer reading a manuscript which describes a controlled trial would be looking for indicators of effective control, among other factors affecting quality of the study. To take another example, when reading a manuscript reporting a systematic review, they would be looking for description of a broad literature search using appropriate search terms, as well as several other aspects of methodology. So different types of research require the peer reviewer to ask different questions about the study methods, but all types of research prompt questions about the way in which the study was conducted and the results are analysed and interpreted.

So when a manuscript goes through peer review, it might not be accepted for publication in that journal, but we get really helpful comments and suggestions which help us to improve it. On the other hand it might be considered for publication, in which case we receive this feedback and an opportunity to address the issues raised by the reviewers and the editor. Either way, authors benefit from the peer review process. It is hard not to feel disappointed when a manuscript is rejected, but look on the bright side. Reviewers’ feedback is valuable – embrace it.

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