Last updated on February 11, 2019
Over the past seven years, I have reviewed more than 150 scientific papers in my field. You may ask why I’m reviewing all these papers? First, I’m getting the most up-to-date papers by this work. Imagine that people are reading papers when it is getting published, but I’m reading them even before publication. Second, you know what others do in research, hence, the review broadens your scope. Third, I see this review process as a public service. I tried my best to help authors to improve their works by giving useful feedback, and I hope others look as critical and constructive to my own work.
Recently, I have tried to record some of them on publons.com . Check out my account on publons, here. I have also served as an Editorial board member for some journals, like Applied Soft Computing, by Elsevier (I.F. 3.5). I got many certificates, appreciations, and awards for my reviews and feedbacks for those papers I reviewed. Over these years, my experience in the review has been improved gradually. I reached to an understanding that, reviewing, criticizing, giving feedback to others’ works is an art. Of course, you may know this already, but I reach it by experience. Now, I can confirm that my first review in 2011 is not like my review a few days ago. Over the time, you become more stable and able to give wise advice. In fact, while I’m trying my best in this process, sometimes, as an academic, I’m suffering from “bad” review on my papers. Of course, by “bad” review I don’t mean that they reject or ask for a revision, but because the reviewer (sometimes the associated editors also) does not know to criticize or give feedback in principle. Now, I know most of the journals are providing guides for reviewers, among other guides; however, these guides are too formal, and they don’t contain real advice. Combining all these reasons, I decided to write down those points that I recognized during this time and put them all together to form some informal guidelines from my experience. I will categorize them into three categories, (1) Accepting a paper to review, (2) Reviewing a paper, and (3) Submitting a review. I will update these guidelines from time to time when I recognize some new issues.
Accepting a paper to review
This stage is when you get an invitation to review and you have to accept or decline it.
- Don’t accept a paper if it does not belong to your field of expertise. When you accept a paper out of your scope, most probably, your judgment will not be fair. Besides, you will spend longer time to understand and review. Accepting a paper out of your scope will lead to delay in the review process also.
- If you have a conflict of interest with one of the authors, never even accept this paper to review. This may also harm your reputation in the future if the editor knows that without informing him.
- If you don’t have time, don’t waste others’ time also. If you feel that you cannot finish the paper within one month and a half (this is my timing suggestion, it is not standard), decline the review.
- Don’t waste your time to review for fake and low-quality journals. Sometimes, this review is just a procedure, and they will accept the paper even when you reject it.
- If for some reason you accept to review a paper, and during the review, you discovered that it is out of your scope, don’t hesitate to contact the editor asking him to pull it out of your responsibility.
Reviewing a paper
This stage is the actual review stage when you accepted the invitation to review.
- Don’t start your review when you are not in a good mood.
- Be responsible and do it in time. Don’t differ your review until you get many notifications from the journal. As far as you accept the invitation, it is your responsibility, put it on your agenda and do it.
- Try to write in a simple and clear English. Don’t make it too complicated.
- Be open to new ideas and don’t try to take the author to what you want. As a reviewer, you have to have a vision. Some papers are really breakthrough in the field even they are not long, or they don’t have complicated and colorful graphs. Also, think about the impact of the paper in the field. Some papers are establishing new directions of research.
- Complicated papers are not necessarily of good quality. Besides, complicated and colorful graphs are not an indication of good results.
- Remember, your style of writing is not standard. The author does not know you to follow your writing style. Give some space and freedom to the author.
- Do not be so harsh. Being tough sometimes is ok but not “Rude.” I tend to be tough in some specific situations, like, when it seems that the author doesn’t know what he is doing and just through some words, or when the method is wrong from the beginning to the end, or when he is taking some parts from other researchers without mentioning. Of course, be tough (or even harsh) when you see plagiarism.
- Don’t build your impression for the paper based on the author name. Having the name of one or more well-known professors on the paper does not mean that its quality is excellent. Concentrate more on the content rather than names. In the same way, getting a paper from a well-known institute does not mean it is a quality paper.
- Never, ever look at the country of origin of the paper or institute. Nowadays, science is everywhere, and you may get a high-quality paper from a very developing country. In software engineering, for example, an excellent outcome may come from a researcher who sits in an impoverished village with one computer and an internet connection. There are no boundaries, and not limitations nowadays.
- When you start reading the paper, first open a text editor file and write down your notes. Do the review in two stage, first is the fast screening review, and Second, detail review. While you read the paper in detail in the second stage, in the first stage, just write general comments about the paper. For example, in the first stage, write about the preparation of the paper, quality of the graphs, references style, … Etc.
- When you know that this work is from a new Ph.D. student, be gentle and kind to him. Maybe it is his first time writing a scientific paper. Try to give him useful advice even if you are going to reject the paper. Try to be his supervisor for one hour and provide him with advice to improve his work. If you are going to reject his work, start with the positive parts of his work, don’t criticize him from the beginning. Your harsh feedback may hurt him without knowing that. He may not get sleep for two days (It happened to me during my Ph.D., and my student during his master). With those old and well-known professors, I tend to be tough.
- Be specific and don’t give general comments. Specify exactly the point of weakness and where in the paper? For example, a reviewer wrote “The methodology is not consistent” for one of my papers. What does this comment mean? It means many things.
- The length of the paper is significant to me. There is no specific page number for the length unless the journal has it in the instruction. However, in general, when I get a paper, after reading it, I will figure out if the paper is an original title that may establish a new direction or an improvement over an already established area. For those original papers, it is reasonable if the paper is lengthy; however, I don’t think any reason for long papers when the area is already-established, and there is no need to give an extensive review about every single aspect of that area.
- In general, I prefer straightforward Abstract. Giving lengthy introduction in the abstract doesn’t make sense as you have already introduction section. As a general rule, I follow the following concept of abstract Problem>> Aim>> Method>> Results and findings.
- Check the citation of the references. For many papers I get, authors are using references like fillers. Check the cited reference and assure that the reference really supports the sentence that cited for.
- Check the references for fake journals and conferences. I think we must cite references from reliable sources like well-known journals and conferences. We should not give credit to those fake venues.
- The quality of the figures and graphs is really a big problem. Zoom in the pdf document and see if the quality of the graph changes. Nowadays, I’m forcing the authors to insert the figures and graphs in pdf. This will assure the quality of the graph even when you zoom in. You can find many papers nowadays in which there are small graphs with small essential measurements on them, but you cannot see them well.
- When you ask for a revision, you have to be specific about what you want exactly from the author. If you feel that what you want is not possible in less than three months, it is better to reject the paper at the first stage. Rejecting a paper after revision is really disappointing for the authors. Of course, you can reject a paper after revision if you find significant problems.
- Verifying the results is really a big problem to me. You can easily draw a graph with fake results. You have to be careful about this point really. I got many papers with fake results. In general, when the author makes something available online, you will have a better feeling. However, even in this case, you have to verify the results.
- The editor in chief in most of the reputable journals will do a preliminary assessment including the plagiarism checker. You have to be sure that the paper passed this stage. Otherwise, it is better to check it.
- When you receive a revised version of the paper again, it is useful to check other reviewers’ comments. Sometimes, reviewers are asking to cite their papers. In this case, it is better to notify the editor about this situation. This is an unethical situation, and the reviewer must not force the author to cite his paper just to get more citation.
Submitting a review
This stage is when you finished the review and now you are about to submit it.
- Think twice when you filled the review form and about to choose your decision before submission. This is a very critical moment. Be careful, even when you give positive feedback but you decide to reject, this may lead to rejection. In fact, some editors are reading the comments carefully and don’t consider that decision as the main point. However, still, this is very important.
- Almost in all reputable journals, there is some section for the confidential comment for the editor. Here you can write your opinion on the paper frankly. Try to make it clear and don’t confuse the editor. Don’t say for example “I cannot decide on this paper!”
- In some journal, you have to give a score to the paper in addition to the decision. Sometimes, this score makes confusion to the editor also. For example, it is not consistent if you decide to reject the paper but give it 80 on a scale of 100!
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