How to write a good referee report

Given the centrality of peer review in academic publishing, it might astonish some to learn that peer review training is not a formal component of any PhD program. Academics largely learn how to do peer review by osmosis: through seeing reports written by their advisors and colleagues, through being on the receiving end of them, and through experience. The result is perhaps predictable: lots of disgruntled researchers and the formation of such groups as “Reviewer 2 must be stopped” on Facebook.

This post is my attempt to make the world a better place by giving some advice on peer review. I have written over 100 reports, and I would like to think I do a good and efficient job (then again, I also mostly learned through osmosis, so you be the judge). Some of my advice is based on a great paper by Berk, Harvey, and Hirshleifer: “How to Write an Effective Referee Report and Improve the Scientific Review Process” (Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2017).

  1. As a reviewer, your job is to decide whether the paper is publishable in its current form and what would make it publishable if it is not. This is a distinct role from that of a copyeditor, whose job is to scrutinize every word and sentence, or a coauthor, whose job is to improve the contribution and substance of the paper. A reviewer’s goal is not to improve the paper, but to evaluate it, even though in the process of evaluating it, he may make suggestions that improve it. Of course, it is difficult for people to completely separate their own opinions from objective facts, but the harder we strive to play the right role, the fairer and smoother the review process will be.
  2. Your explanation of the paper’s strengths and weaknesses is more important than your recommendation. Many of us agonize over whether to recommend rejection or revise-and-resubmit. But reviewers do not know how many other submissions the journal receives or what their quality is. Even if you think the paper is great, it may be rejected because there are many papers that are even better. And a mediocre paper may make the cut if the other submissions are inferior to it. So the biggest service you can do for the editor is to help her rank the paper against the other submissions she is handling. Thus, you should aim to explain to the editor of what’s most impressive about the paper and what is lacking. The recommendation itself is secondary. When I recommend a rejection, I use the letter to the editor to outline the issues that make the paper unpublishable (there are usually 1-3), and why I don’t think they can be fixed by the authors.
  3. In case of rejection, make it clear to the authors what the deal-breakers are. The most frustrating and confusing reports to get are ones that raise seemingly addressable issues but are accompanied by a rejection recommendation. It may seem easier to save the “worst” for the letter to the editor, but it will leave the authors trying to guess why exactly the paper was rejected. Anecdotally, the most likely conclusion they will come to is “The reviewer just didn’t like the paper and then looked for reasons to reject it”, which is how Reviewer 2 groups get formed. Of course, you should use professional and courteous language in your reports. But don’t hide your ultimate opinion about the paper from the authors.
  4. In case of a revise-and-resubmit, make it clear to the authors what the must-dos and nice-to-dos are. Point 1 does not mean you should avoid suggestions that wouldn’t make or break publication. Many of my papers were improved by suggestions that weren’t central to the revision (for example, a reviewer suggested a great title change once). So if you have a good idea for improving the paper, by all means share it with the authors. But keep in mind that they will have at least one or maybe two-three other reviewers to satisfy, and the “to do” list can quickly spiral out of control. Sometimes the editor will tell the authors which reviewer comments to address and which to ignore. But sometimes the editor will pass on the comments to the authors as is. By separating your comments into those you think are indispensable and those that are optional, you’ll be doing the authors a big favor.
  5. Don’t spend a lot of time on a paper that you’re sure you’re going to reject. This is perhaps the most controversial piece of advice (see this Tweet & subsequent discussions) because some authors view the review process as a “peer feedback” system. But it is not (see point 1). And, at least in economics, many of us are overwhelmed with review requests and editors sometimes have a hard time finding available reviewers. Treating the review process as “peer feedback” exacerbates this problem. If you think the authors’ basic premise is fundamentally flawed or the data are so problematic that no answer obtained from them would be credible, you should not feel obligated to give comments on other parts of the paper. This does not mean that you should not be thorough – there are few things more frustrating than a reviewer complaining about something that was explicitly addressed by the authors. But in such cases you do not need to give feedback on parts of the paper that did not affect your decision.

Finally, I’d like to wrap up with an outline of how I actually do the review. First, I print out a physical copy of the paper and read it, highlighting/underlining and making notes in the margins or on a piece of paper. Second, I write a summary of the paper in my own words (it is useful for the editor to get an objective summary of the paper, and the authors can make sure I was on the same page as them). Third, I go through my handwritten comments and type the most relevant ones up, elaborating as needed. Fourth, I number my comments (helpful for referencing them in later stages, if applicable), order them from most to least important, and separate the deal-breakers or must-dos from the nice-to-dos. Fifth, I highlight the deal breakers (if rejecting) or must-dos (if suggesting revisions) in the letter to the editor. Finally, regardless of my recommendation, I try to say something nice about the paper both in the editor letter and in the report. Regardless of its quality, most papers have something good about them, and authors might be just a tad happier if their hard work was acknowledged more often.

What to do after a rejection

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” (though the earliest origin of that idea dates to Christopher Bullock in 1716, apparently). Most academics would agree that paper rejections also belong on that list. My 10 published papers have been rejected a total of 29 times. I also have two “archived” papers that were collectively rejected eight times before I gave up on them and four working papers that so far have been rejected seven times (two are now revise-and-resubmit, so the rate of rejection is decreasing). So I have a total of 44 rejections. I have ZERO papers that got a revise-and-resubmit at the first journal I submitted them to (= each of my papers has been rejected at least once). I’m not even counting conference and grant rejections.

Paper rejections come in many shapes and sizes: your run-of-the-mill “Nice paper, but not enough of a contribution for this journal” or “Too many little things wrong” rejections; a reviewer finding something genuinely wrong with your manuscript; boilerplate desk rejections; a half-page report from a lazy reviewer who clearly hasn’t read your paper; and the frustrating “I just don’t believe your results” rejection. Rejections don’t feel good, but given that they are inevitable, it’s important to learn how to deal with them and move past them as quickly as possible. Below, I provide some suggestions that have worked for me.

First, allow yourself to take a few days to “mourn” the decision. A few days of inaction after a rejection won’t make much of a difference. I typically don’t even read the referee reports closely until it’s been a few days because I’m not confident in my ability to take in the feedback objectively. By all means, trash-talk the referees to your colleagues (people at your institution almost surely won’t be asked to review your papers), join the “Reviewer 2 must be stopped” group on Facebook (especially if you don’t know what “Reviewer 2” refers to), have a drink or two (please drink responsibly), do some exercise, work on another paper, or binge-watch that show you’ve been waiting to see. Do be careful how you discuss your reports online or at conferences because you never know who your reviewers were or who might know who your reviewers were.

It is hard not to take rejections personally, but in the vast majority of cases, they are not. The reviewers rejected your paper, they did not reject you as a person or a researcher. Even the comments about your paper may not have anything to do with the quality of your paper. Some reviewers might strongly dislike a particular methodology or research area, others may have had a bad day or week, and some may operate in toxic environments where unnecessary harshness is disguised as “honesty”. Your reviewer may have been a graduate student doing a referee report for the first time or a senior professor drowning in service work. Almost everyone has a “Reviewer 2” story, including some of the best researchers, and you are not alone. If a reviewer seemed particularly unfair, talk to a senior colleague about appealing the decision. However, appeals are definitely not the standard way to deal with rejections.

Next comes the time for actual work. Unless the journal rejecting your paper was your last stop before you were going to abandon efforts to publish it, try to return to the reports within a week of the rejection and look at them objectively. It can be tempting to either (1) ignore the reports completely and send the paper back out as soon as possible or (2) treat the reports as a revise-and-resubmit and try to address all the reviewer’s comments. Neither approach is generally a good idea, for two reasons.

First, you may get the same reviewer again. In some fields, reviewing the same paper twice is not acceptable, so you may get a different draw in that case. But in economics and surely some other fields, it’s not uncommon for the same person to review the paper two or more times at different journals. In such a case, the best you can hope for if you didn’t change anything in your paper is that the reviewer will return the same report to the editor. But it’s also possible that the reviewer will be annoyed that you did not take into account any of the comments they worked hard to give you and treat your paper more harshly than the first time around. In short, you want to avoid giving the impression that you thought the comments so worthless that you did not address even one.

Second, even if you’re 100% sure you’re not going to get the same reviewer, it’s highly unlikely that the reviewers’ comments were completely idiosyncratic or idiotic. If you ignore a comment that you could have addressed and a subsequent reviewer has the same concern, your paper could end up rejected again for avoidable reasons. Despite all the “Reviewer 2” stories out there, I think the overall peer review process is far from completely broken, so it’s also very unlikely that all the comments are useless and wrong. In short, the best way to treat the reviewer reports following a rejection is as an opportunity to make your paper better.

When deciding whether to address a particular comment, I ask myself two things: (1) How likely is this comment to come up again? and (2) How easy is this for me to address? The higher the comment is on this two-dimensional likelihood-ease scale, the more you should jump at the chance to address it. Whether something is likely to come up again or not is the hardest question to answer. Here, thinking about comments you’ve gotten at conferences or asking colleagues for their feedback on a particular comment can be really helpful. Rigorous self-honesty helps too: with some introspection, most of us will be able to identify comments where the reviewer really does have a point. Once you’ve identified all the relevant comments, start addressing them one by one. Where to stop can be difficult to tell, but if you start with the comments that rank high on ease and/or likelihood, you can stop at any point with the knowledge that you’ve addressed the most important ones. For me, a good rule of thumb is that the paper should be ready to go back out within 1-3 months or less of not-full-time work (this is probably equivalent to about 1-3 weeks of full-time for me). Anything more than that is likely to be excessive in most circumstances.

I’ll wrap up with two specific suggestions. If a reviewer comment makes it seem like she or he misunderstood something about what you’re doing, try to see if you can make that part of the paper clearer. You have the privilege of knowing your paper better than anyone else, so what seems clear to you may not be to the average reader. If there is a comment that seems likely to come up again but would be really difficult to address, you have a few options. You can add a brief explanation as to why doing X would be difficult, possibly as a footnote, possibly as a suggested avenue for future research. This signals to reviewers that you are aware of X. Relatedly, you can hint that you could do X but it’s outside of the scope of the current paper. That allows a persistent reviewer to insist on seeing X in a revision but reduces the likelihood that they reject the paper because you didn’t already do X.

In the end, these steps don’t necessarily make rejections more pleasant, but they do move your paper closer to published!