Best Practices in Peer Reviews

man showing another man a piece of paper

Many doctoral students never perform a peer review prior to earning their PhD, while others do half a dozen or so. This raises the question: Why and how should PhD students accept peer review invitations?


The peer review process is a lengthy and tedious one, but it’s definitely worth the effort. It gives graduate students another perspective to consider as they write up their own research. Journal editors generally reach out to established authorities in the field to do peer reviews simply because their names are known.

If you and your advisor think you’re ready to do your first review, you’ll either have to be recommended for the job by an established authority or you’ll have to get your own name out there by publishing a paper or two.

Accepting an Invitation to Review

Many scientists consider it their duty to accept review invitations, but only if they have expertise in the subject area and only if they have sufficient time to devote to the paper. Before accepting an invitation, you should consider:

  • Whether you have any potential conflicts of interest.
  • Whether the journal uses an unbiased review process.
  • Whether you feel confident in your ability to provide constructive feedback.
  • What the deadline is for the review completion.

Evaluating the Paper

After you’ve done a few reviews, you’ll probably establish a methodology that works best for you. First, you should always check the journal’s formatting guidelines or requirements for the review, if any.

Keep these guidelines in mind throughout the review process. Then, read the paper sequentially, making notes as you go. Once you’ve done the first read-through, go back and scrutinize each section more carefully. Pay particular attention to the methods section. The journal should have statistics experts on staff to check those figures but you’ll be expected to evaluate the study design. As you make notes for your review ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the hypothesis make sense?
  • Is the methodology flawed in any way?
  • Do the claims align with the data, or do they overreach?
  • Does the study adequately address the central question?
  • How does the central question fit in with the current knowledge in the field?

Before your extensive notes get out of control, find a way to organize them. Some reviewers like to keep notes for major and minor issues separate.

Writing the Review

If the journal requests a specific format for the review, stick with that. Otherwise, a typical review will start with an overall statement of the paper and its claims. From there, write a brief summary of your overall assessment. Then, you can work sequentially through the paper, offering critique based on your notes as you proceed. You may prefer to structure your review so that the positive feedback comes before the constructive criticism. Some reviewers prefer to cover the major issues first, followed by the minor issues later if they have time. Whichever format you choose, follow these tips:

  • Focus on constructive feedback that’s useful for the authors as well as the journal editor.
  • Substantiate each point you make regarding flaws in the paper.
  • Pretend you’re speaking to the authors in person, and make respectful language choices.

The College of Doctoral Studies at Grand Canyon University establishes an academically rigorous, yet supportive learning community for our PhD candidates. We look forward to meeting our incoming doctoral students and hearing about their research proposals. You can begin the admissions process by clicking on the Request More Information button at the top of the screen.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.