, but based on our experience of the process — taken together with feedback from our authors and referees — we suggest the following guidelines that try to satisfy the needs of everyone involved.
Reports should begin with a short summary of the work in question, but nothing more than two or three sentences are necessary. This serves to focus the review, clearly stating how the work is viewed by the referee and highlighting any problematic differences between how the authors and readers will interpret the claims made. It can also help to avoid the oft-raised criticism ‘This reviewer has clearly not read my paper’, which we are certain is rarely (if ever) the case.
Reviewers may have been selected to cover different aspects of a piece of work, particularly in the case of interdisciplinary research. It will help to state upfront (or at least inform the editor) if there are parts of a paper that you don’t feel comfortable evaluating. That said, reviewers are still welcome to provide opinion on areas outside their own expertise, and such information can be valuable to the editor in judging the appeal of the work to a general audience. If, for example, you are an experimentalist being asked to review a theoretical paper, then comments on how the work fits into the field and how it will influence future experiments could be the most valuable input you can provide. Authors should keep in mind when reading reports that an individual reviewer may have been chosen to represent a particular point of view.
The summary should be followed with a brief discussion of what relevant related research has gone before, from both the authors of the current work and from others, in an attempt to define the advance that has been reported. What have we learned in this paper? How and why does that change future directions in this research area? These comments are most valuable when backed by references: the comment ‘this has been done before’ is not helpful unless we know where it was published and by whom.
Following on from this, a summary of both the merits and problems of the research can be quite useful in order to focus on the most pertinent issues. This can be far more instructive than simply writing a report with a particular outcome (accept/reject/revise) in mind or aiming to justify a definitive recommendation.
A good report should clearly distinguish between the claims made and their importance versus the evidence presented in support of those claims. The data in a manuscript — whether experimental or theoretical — should fully support the conclusions. This brings us to another issue frequently raised in criticisms of peer review: the need for additional work. No-one sets out to be the dreaded ‘third reviewer’