Advice for enhancing the clarity of peer review reports

bookAlthough an in-depth knowledge of the subject topic under review is clearly one of the prerequisites for acting as a peer reviewer, the need to ensure that the language used in the peer review report is appropriate to the receiving author shouldn’t be underestimated.

Peer reviewers can be guilty of using complicated language, whether deliberately in an attempt to impress or accidentally because of, say, a lack of English language skills themselves.

Below are three recommendations for peer reviewers when they undertake the delicate job of critiquing the work of a fellow researcher, particularly when one or both of the parties in question is a non-native English speaker.



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Keep it simple

According to the deputy editor of BioEssays Kerstin Brachhold, peer reviewers should guard against using overly complicated words and phrases.

She says: “Write your report so that it can also be easily understood by non-native English speakers.

“Short and clearly structured sentences will help you get your message across. Furthermore, carefully think about word usage. Using complex and unusual words might obscure the meaning.

“It is not helpful if authors have to consult a dictionary to understand your report.”


Choose your language carefully

Colloquialisms, regional phrasing and the use of unclear abbreviations or anonyms can also serve to obscure the true meaning of the reviewer.

Remember that the key objective of your report is to help an often junior and less experienced researcher improve the clarity of their scientific findings.

In that regard, the use of sarcasm is to be avoided, as it would almost certainly be misunderstood by persons from different cultural backgrounds.


Be direct, but be polite

Ensure that your choice of wording conveys exactly the kinds of improvements that must be undertaken to merit publication compared with only those activities that might be beneficial.

Indirect text should be avoided when pointing out the fundamental flaws of the piece of research under review.

Nonetheless, the use of impolite or even straightforward offensive or accusatory language is simply not helpful.

Never let your personal biases or feelings about the author in question cloud the neutrality of your report.


Tolerance and goodwill work both ways …

Finally, Kerstin urges authors to show restraint when they receive a referee report that might have fallen into one of these grammatical traps mentioned above.

“Authors should also pause before reacting emotionally to the language in a reviewer report,” she says.

“Just as the reviewer should remember that the author is not necessarily a native English speaker, the author should assume the same of the reviewer when reading a report.

“Criticism expressed in robust language is not necessarily unfair.

“Tolerance and goodwill on both sides will be beneficial in the communication between reviewers and authors and will ultimately help to improve a manuscript.”

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