Why Write a Public Review Summary?

A public review summary model provides a balance between fully open and fully confidential peer review. A public review summary allows a reviewer to highlight the key issues, writing specifically for readers. This saves the reader time by allowing them to quickly understand a reviewer’s thoughts on a paper. It provides more transparency than fully confidential peer review, while not requiring a reader to navigate the full peer review report.

The public review summary model allows reviewers to omit material that is not relevant for readers from their public review summary. For example, a reviewer might not mention their more minor comments and queries in their public review summary.

Suggested Length

The suggested length of a public review summary depends on the type of review and the paper under review. A reviewer of a empirical research paper might write two or three paragraphs, while a reviewer who is checking references and citations might write just one sentence. For most standard reviews, a review of about one paragraph is a good length.

Structure

The following structure is suggested for standard reviews of empirical research papers and reviews, based on standard practice among peer reviewers and advice given by other reputable publishers.

  1. Begin with a statement summarising the paper under review.
  2. If desired, introduce your perspective as a reviewer.
  3. Describe the major strengths and weaknesses of the paper and discuss its overall merit.
  4. Comment on the relevance or usefulness of the paper or provide any additional context.

1. Summary Statement

The majority of reviews begin with a statement summarising the paper under review, e.g. “This paper shows that, under specific motivational states, appetitive cues activate cortico-striatal circuits.”

According to Eve and colleagues, these statements serve three purposes:

  1. They demonstrate that you, as the reviewer, have read the paper.
  2. They confirm you’re talking about the right paper.
  3. They demonstrate that you understand the paper and are therefore a good choice of reviewer.

These statements don’t have to be very long. One or two sentences is usually sufficient.

2. Introducing Your Perspective

You may wish to briefly introduce your perspective for the reader to highlight your expertise and provide the reader with some idea of the scope of your review.

For example, you might write, “As a neuroscientist who has spent 10 years studying spatial learning, I found this paper illuminating” to situate yourself as an expert in the paper’s behavioural methods. Alternatively, you might write, “I am a neuropharmacologist who studies G-protein receptor interactions…” to situate yourself as an expert in the more molecular or pharmacological aspects of the paper.

3. Strengths, Weaknesses, and Overall Merit

Appraising the strengths and weaknesses of the paper is one of the most important parts of the public review. Reviewers should be critical, but diplomatic and professional. Reviewers should offer praise when deserved and describe important weaknesses when they are present.

Other issues to address here include:

  • Did the paper achieve its aims?
  • If the paper was a review paper, was it sufficient in scope? Was its argument convincing?
  • If the paper was subject to multiple review rounds, was it improved during revision and were reviewer comments adequately addressed?

This section should contain the bulk of the public review summary. For most papers, it is suggested that 4-5 sentences should be sufficient. However, in some cases more or less may be required.

4. Relevance, Usefulness, or Additional Context

Towards the end of a public review, eLife recommends discussing “the likely impact, and the utility of the methods and data to the community.” This may be especially helpful when reviewing an empirical research article. Some considerations:

  • How does the paper fit within the field?
  • Does the paper challenge existing current theory or resolve theoretical challenges?
  • For a review paper, what kind of purpose does it serve? For example, does it provide a timely update of the field, a comprehensive analysis of an issue, or a strong introduction for new students?
  • Does the paper have any other relevance, for example, to the wider public?
  • Is there any additional context that readers might need to properly interpret the paper?

Style and Tone

The public review recommendations by eLife are generally applicable to public review summaries, since they both have similar audiences and purposes:

As recommended by eLife, public review summaries:

  • Should be clear about any technical and conceptual concerns, but should also be written in a serious and constructive manner appropriate for a public audience, and mindful of the impact language choices might have on the authors.
  • Address the entire paper, not just individual points or sections.
  • Highlight how and where the authors succeeded, where there are useful data, and where there are major conceptual and technical advances.

and avoid:

  • Comments on the appropriateness of the manuscript for publication in [the journal] or speculation about where it should be published.
  • Suggestions on how to improve the science or the manuscript, especially those directed at increasing its impact, except where they help to convey points raised in the review to readers.
  • Open-ended questions.
  • Discussion of minor points or issues of presentation except where they may lead to confusion about the major points of the paper.

Offer Praise When Deserved

Reviewers should not be afraid to offer praise when deserved. Positive comments from reviewers are rewarding for authors and affirm for readers that the time they are dedicating to a paper is worthwhile. Moreover, as we try to move away from over-simplified metrics-based assessments of research, positive public comments from reviewers can be quoted by authors in applications for employment, promotion, or funding.

Additional Resources

  1. Read the full guidelines and examples from eLife [Archived], keeping in mind that eLife provides a much more detailed public review, whereas we are providing a public review summary.
  2. Read previous papers in the journal. Reflect on which public review summaries were most helpful and why.
  3. Contact your editor for help.

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