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When it comes to reviewing manuscripts for publication, who are the toughest reviewers? Most journal editors will tell you it's students and early-career psychologists. New to the process, they tend to spend more time than seasoned scientists poring over the articles and revising their feedback, they say.

"If anything, student reviewers tend to have higher standards than their mentors," says William Davidson, PhD, editor of the American Journal of Community Psychology (AJCP), which has been training students how to conduct peer reviews since the 1970s. "Everyone knows that the new PhD is the hardest professor on campus." And while rigorous reading is always a good thing, students--like any reviewers--can fall into editing traps. Some focus on grammar mistakes that should be left to the main editor, rather than on big-picture feedback. Others come down too hard to show off their smarts, editors say.

To maximize your reviewing opportunities, here's some wise advice from experienced reviewers and editors:

  • Come prepared. Editors usually offer student reviewers papers in their areas of expertise, but if you land a paper that's in unfamiliar territory, review the relevant psychology literature before your first read-through, editors say. "You're not evaluating the study in isolation, but in the context of its literature," says Yale University's Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, APA's president.

  • Cover the bases. A good review should detail a paper's strengths and weaknesses and answer such broad questions as: What contribution will this paper make to the field? Is the methodology sound? Can the readers clearly draw conclusions based on the analysis? Is the writing clear? Is it well-organized? Study the journal's reviewer guidelines, too, which may list more questions to tackle, such as whether the paper addresses diversity issues, editors say.

  • Avoid copy editing. A reviewer's job is to focus on substantive feedback; the journal's editor and copy editors mark the punctuation errors and style points. Point out egregious errors, says Kazdin, but note them as minor points near the end of your review, rather than lead with a run-down of grammatical blunders.

  • Have confidence. While some new reviewers overcriticize, others don't have faith in their own opinions, says Mary Beth Kenkel, PhD, who worked with student reviewers when she edited Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (PPRP). She advises students to avoid being too nice. "Wishy-washy comments aren't that helpful to authors," she says. "The author has to then try to figure out what they really mean. Be direct."

  • Fix what can be fixed. Good reviews focus on the necessary repairs, not the elements that can't be altered, such as the study sample. "Authors can't fix what their sample should have been," says Davidson. Point out realistic revisions given the original research, he says. If you feel the work is unpublishable due to serious errors in the science, say so and advise rejection.

  • Take small bites. Michigan State University graduate student Megan Greeson takes several passes at the articles she reviews for journals such as the American Journal of Evaluation and AJCP. She devotes one read to methodology and another for critiquing the writing and organization. She also teases the sections apart, checking that the discussion follows the results and so forth. "I like to make sure everything matches and that it's one coherent paper," says Greeson.

  • Watch your language. Let a finished review sit for a day before re-reading it to critique your tone, which should be professional, polite and constructive rather than hostile or patronizing, says Kazdin. "Some people are naturally Mother Teresa-like, and other people are more Reviewer the Ripper," he says. "Reviewing is like a martial art. Even though you are capable of doing harm, that's not the purpose here." From an editor's perspective, a negative tone reflects badly on the reviewer, not the author, he adds.

  • Compare and learn. Most editors send reviewers the final revision cover letter that he or she returned to the author, says Kenkel, who advises students to compare their reviews with others' to see what they may have missed. Students should also note whether their feedback made it into the editor's main suggestions for revision, she says.

Once they reach this point, many students say journal editing isn't as daunting as they once thought.

"Before I reviewed, I had always seen the finished product," says former APAGS Chair Kristi Sands Van Sickle, PsyD, who worked with Kenkel on reviews for PPRP as a graduate student. "When I started reading raw projects I thought, 'I can do this!' It gave me more confidence to publish and submit in the future."


Would you like to get your feet wet with peer reviewing? Visit http://gradpsych.apags.org/nov05/cover-primer.html for tips on finding reviewing opportunities.