Helpful Hints for Effective Peer
by Seri Lowell [
Scientific Writing Specialist
at Bates Program, Bates College
One of the hardest things about getting
started with peer reviewing is dealing with your reluctance to
give negative feedback. After all, were all socialized
not to say mean things to people, and purely negative commentary
usually doesnt end up helping the writer anyway. The purpose
of this document is to help you find ways to get around this
1) remembering to give positive commentary
where a writer
has done well, and by,
2) turning negative feedback into productive
1. When reviewing, it is always important
to note a papers strengths, so that the author will not
lose these in the process of revision. Never assume an author
will automatically know which parts of a paper work well... remember,
they have been immersed in it too long to be objective. The peer
review form asks you to list the three major strengths of
the paper in section VIIc - but remember to do this throughout
the paper too, writing marginal comments like good paragraph
when you read a part that flows well.
2. But how to deal with the parts that
really do have problems? The key is to make sure the comments
you write are substantive comments. As we read, we all have
reactions to problematic parts of a paper: Huh? This is unclear... Gosh,
this is disorganized!... What is this person trying
to say here???. But these reactions
are only the first step in the process of constructing helpful
commentary, and writing down these initial reactions as comments
is not usually useful to the writer.
How can you turn these unhelpful comments
into helpful ones? You need to
go a step beyond your initial reaction, and ask yourself why
you are reacting negatively to that sentence or paragraph. Why,
for instance, does a paragraph seem disorganized? Are several
topics mixed together in one paragraph? Or is a single topic
treated, but presented out of logical sequence, so that the reader
is constantly grasping for information not yet given? Or does
the writer seem to start with one
idea or position, but then reverse him/herself later in the paragraph?
You can see that this process will take
some work on your part, because you need to reflect on your reactions
and read in a very involved way. Below are some examples of unhelpful
reaction-type comments that have been turned into
helpful comments by this process of reflection.
Unhelpful comment: "This section needs work."
Helpful Comment: Combine the related actions into
a single sentence in Methods, eg, "Flies were assigned randomly
to 5 treatment groups of 25, and were weighed, sexed, and marked
with non-toxic paint before behaviorial trials began"
Unhelpful comment: "Disorganized!"
Helpful Comment: "This
section discusses both animal-rearing conditions and experimental
methods, but the two are mixed together. Could you separate each
into its own paragraph?"
Unhelpful comment: "How are these references
Helpful Comment: "The background and references
given in poaragraph 2 don't seem directly relevant to our hypothesis.
I think we need references on how light has been shown to affect
flowering (in sunflower or any species), and less on other factors
that promote or inhibit flowering."
Unhelpful comment: "Unclear."
Helpful Comment: "I'm not sure what your interpretation
is after these two paragraphs: does the experiment show that
mung beans cure cancer, or not? Which are we concluding? If the
sample size is too small, we need to discuss that when we suggest
future research, but that does not change our results here."