Explaining peer review

Wednesday, 21 Sep 2016

By Meredith Carroll, Journals Manager and Senior Commissioning Editor: Archaeology and Medieval Studies

Reviewer 2 walks into a bar and immediately says that this isn’t the joke he/she would have written 

Peer review is one of the cornerstones of scholarly publishing and it is also one of its great mysteries. It can be rewarding and incredibly useful but also frustrating, disheartening and confusing. For Peer Review Week, I’ll attempt to shed light on the what, why and how of peer review.

What is it?

Peer review is the process of evaluating an article, book proposal or manuscript by one or more external experts in the field. A journal editor or book commissioning editor will ask the expert to write a report after the submission of a work and making their own initial assessment. Depending on the journal or publisher’s policy, the identities of the author and/or reviewer may or may not be revealed to each other.

Why do we do it?

Journal or commissioning editors cannot be experts in every area. Peer review reports help the editors to decide if a work is publishable.

Authors receive free advice from experts that will improve their work, before it is too late to make changes. It can also help raise their profile – the reviewers will now know the author’s name and will have invested time and effort in their work.

Readers trust publications that have been peer reviewed.

Peer reviewers benefit too. They get to hear about emerging research while performing a vital role as a member of the academic community.

What does it include?

A peer reviewer’s comments may depend on the discipline and the journal or publisher, but at a basic level a report will assess a work’s originality, relevance, significance and quality.

They may include remarks on writing style and organisation, argument structure, research methodology, contribution to the field, theoretical framework, engagement with previous research, breadth of source base and strength of interpretations and conclusions.

They may also include instructions for writing a different book or article, gleefully snide comments, an almost complete lack of detail, conflicting advice from different readers and destructive criticism without suggestions for improvement.

Bad peer reviews happen and an author will be lucky to avoid receiving one at some point in their career. Hopefully most will include praise for the goods parts, constructive, objective and specific advice on the parts that need work and advice on further reading that would be helpful.

How to respond?

When the editor sends the peer review reports, the author may want to respond right away, especially if the reviews are negative. It is better to resist this temptation and take the time to digest the reviewer’s comments.

An author should:

  • List the points and respond to each in turn.
  • Acknowledge their validity. If a reader has misinterpreted something, it is more likely down to the explanation rather than their intelligence.
  • Explain any disagreement respectfully and provide justification for not changing the work according to the reviewer’s suggestion.
  • Not take anything personally.

What if peer review results in a rejection by the journal or commissioning editor? It happens all the time and often doesn’t mean the work is not worth publishing with some revision. Authors should take the comments, suggestions and constructive criticisms on board and try again.


If you’d like to know more about peer review or want some tips on how to write your own peer review report, visit the Library Research Plus blog take the University of Manchester Library’s online tutorial on peer review.


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