Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How to review an academic paper

An inescapable part of being an academic, arguably even a PhD student these days, is the stream of requests to review journal articles, conference submissions, grant applications and book proposals. Leaving aside book proposals and grant applications for this article, please find below a list of things I consider important when I receive reviews of articles I have written, or when I solicit reviews for articles written by others.

0) A reviewer should always read the paper. Properly. Try to understand the paper. Properly. It is absurd that I would have to write this but I have read many reviews where I question whether or not the reviewer has read beyond the abstract, figure captions and conclusion. If you haven't time to read the full article properly, you should decline to conduct the review. Please don't say you will do it and then do a shoddy job. This helps nobody.

1) Cite me! Cite me! It is highly likely, even desirable, that reviewers of an article will themselves have published in the area where they are reviewing. It is of course not surprising that you, as a reviewer, feel your own work to be worth citing, and that therefore you would like to see its value recognised in the articles you review. In my opinion, this is fine. Ask for your work to be cited: if it is essential reading to provide background for the topic; or if it directly supports or counters a claim made in the article under review. Otherwise, please don't ask. If you do request a citation of your work don't harp on it, and please don't expect the authors to reference everything you have ever written throughout their article. Temper your enthusiasm for your own work.

2) Clearly articulate your requests. Clarify your arguments for insisting the authors make a change to their paper. Be explicit about what is wrong or in need of mending and make concrete, constructive suggestions as to how to improve it. This kind of criticism and information is the most helpful thing authors can receive. If you are a good reviewer, you will provide it.

3) Always be nice. Nobody likes to receive a "reject", but the least you can do as a reviewer is to be polite about it. Be especially sure you address point 2) above if you must reject an article.

4) Point out the strengths of an article. You might not find every submitted piece of research convincing, or well presented, or rigourously conducted. Even so, try to find something nice to say about it. Authors can build a good article and hopefully a worthwhile career from what you perceive to be their strengths. This is especially helpful for young or early career researchers. Be encouraging to those attempting to publish in your field. That is a great way to ensure your field welcomes new ideas and new blood, and it assists newcomers to understand how they can make a valuable contribution. Be a guide, not a gatekeeper.

5) Write the review you would like to receive from an expert if the article was your own and you had put a solid year or more of work into it.

Of course authors too have responsibilities. For instance they should proof-read articles carefully, write clearly and report on rigourously conducted research appropriate for their field. If authors meet their responsibilities the reviewer's role can be pleasurable. It is always frustrating to be asked to review an article littered with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and unintelligible turns of phrase. If you receive such an article and feel that it is beyond repair, please suggest to the authors they edit it carefully (or have somebody do this for them) prior to resubmission. Personally, I think this is preferable to asking a reviewer (even if that reviewer is yourself) to spend their time on an article that is not yet ready for review.

More suggestions beyond points 1-5 above are welcome. Happy reading!

Friday, February 7, 2014

What is a good abstract?

In this article I will discuss abstracts for scientific papers and articles on art and technology.

There are probably many people better qualified to write this post than me, but as a regular reviewer for journals, conferences, grant applications, books etc. I guess it really matters to some people what I am looking for in an abstract, even if I am only one of many reviewers, even if my opinions are unconventional (for instance in the arts). So, what do I think are the properties of a good abstract?

I think a good abstract is (i) informative, (ii) clear and (iii) succinct. Obviously these aren't mutually exclusive properties, they are closely related. To be informative, tell me what I need to know. More on that in a second. To be clear, avoid jargon and keep terminology simple. Avoid references to other material (keep that for the introduction/background). The abstract is not post-modern poetry. Please explain yourself as simply and clearly as you can to engage as many people as possible. If you want people to read your paper, you must be understood by them from the beginning. To be succinct provide an overview but no detail, don't waffle.

What is needed for an abstract to be informative? Tell me directly what you have done. Tell me why you did it and convince me that it is important. Then tell me how you did it - briefly! This is the abstract, not the method/approach so keep it short. If the technique you used is well-known just name the technique. If the technique is related to a well-known technique, just name the technique and say that you used a custom or previously published variant of it. Lastly, tell me your conclusions, but just the main findings. This isn't a mystery novel. The reader mustn't be kept guessing until the Results section. Please include this information upfront.

That's it. I hope that isn't too much to ask. I must remember these guidelines myself next time I write an abstract.