The primary purpose of the review is to provide the editors with the information needed to reach a decision. The review should also instruct the authors on how they can strengthen their paper to the point where it may be acceptable. As far as possible, a negative review should explain to the authors the weaknesses of their manuscript, so that rejected authors can understand the basis for the decision and see in broad terms what needs to be done to improve the manuscript for publication elsewhere. This is secondary to the other functions, however, and referees should not feel obliged to provide detailed, constructive advice to authors of papers that do not meet the criteria for the journal (as outlined in the letter from the editor when asking for the review). If the reviewer believes that a manuscript would not be suitable for publication, his/her report to the author should be as brief as is consistent with enabling the author to understand the reason for the decision.
Confidential comments to the editor are welcome, but it is helpful if the main points are stated in the comments for transmission to the authors. The ideal review should answer the following questions:
- Who will be interested in reading the paper, and why?
- What are the main claims of the paper and how significant are they?
- Is the paper likely to be one of the five most significant papers published in the discipline this year?
- How does the paper stand out from others in its field?
- Are the claims novel? If not, which published papers compromise novelty?
- Are the claims convincing? If not, what further evidence is needed?
- Are there other experiments or work that would strengthen the paper further?
- How much would further work improve it, and how difficult would this be? Would it take a long time?
- Are the claims appropriately discussed in the context of previous literature?
- If the manuscript is unacceptable, is the study sufficiently promising to encourage the authors to resubmit?
- If the manuscript is unacceptable but promising, what specific work is needed to make it acceptable?
We appreciate that reviewers are busy, and we are very grateful if they can answer the questions in the section above. However, if time is available, it is extremely helpful to the editors if reviewers can advise on some of the following points:
- Is the manuscript clearly written?
- If not, how could it be made more clear or accessible to nonspecialists?
- Would readers outside the discipline benefit from a schematic of the main result to accompany publication?
- Could the manuscript be shortened? (Because of pressure on space in our printed pages we aim to publish manuscripts as short as is consistent with a persuasive message.)
- Should the authors be asked to provide supplementary methods or data to accompany the paper online? (Such data might include source code for modelling studies, detailed experimental protocols or mathematical derivations.)
- Have the authors done themselves justice without overselling their claims?
- Have they been fair in their treatment of previous literature?
- Have they provided sufficient methodological detail that the experiments could be reproduced?
- Is the statistical analysis of the data sound, and does it conform to the journal’s guidelines?
- Are the reagents generally available?
- Are there any special ethical concerns arising from the use of human or other animal subjects?