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Peer Review Week 2019: meet the reviewers


Heidelberg, 16 September 2019 Peer Review Week 2019 focuses on the topic of quality in peer review. Recognizing the central role that the referees play in maintaining quality in the review process at the EMBO Press journals, we talked to five of our reviewers about their motivation to review and the importance of quality and transparency in peer review.



Helen Rowe, University College London, UK

On being a reviewer:

Being a reviewer is a privilege because it allows you a sneak preview of exciting advances in your field. I consider reviewing papers as a normal responsibility of scientists, who expect their own work to be fairly reviewed in a timely manner. While I find that meeting peer review deadlines adds to the relentless high demands of running a lab, it is a fantastic opportunity to engage with the field. Particularly for junior principal investigators, reviewing papers is an important part of understanding the science and networking with editors and leading researchers that will likely enhance your own research and career.


On quality in peer review:

I think that quality in peer review means highlighting the strengths of the work, while considering what aspects of the data and text lack clarity, accuracy or novelty. It is important to be mindful that the aim is to think about necessary improvements to the overall work, rather than unfair criticism. Maintaining a high standard of quality and fair peer review is crucial because it will inspire and encourage colleagues to adopt the same approach. I expect my work to be fairly reviewed and so do others, so it’s worth keeping this in mind when reviewing a manuscript. I also think that summarizing the key findings in one’s own words is a key starting point in assessing a piece of work.


On transparency in peer review:

Although I suspect that no one particularly enjoys revisiting reviewers’ comments and reliving the review process of their work online, I feel that preserving the unabridged comments in conjunction with a manuscript does promote quality in peer review. As such, resulting published articles might be considered more rigorous. EMBO Press is well-renowned and respected for its transparent peer review process, outlining a model for other publishers to learn from.



Jürgen Götz, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

On being a reviewer:

I regularly review papers because it is a service to the community and I understand that I am also dependent on my peers reviewing my manuscripts. Besides, I do enjoy the review process, which gives me great insight into research, including work to which I would otherwise not be exposed.


I try to approach manuscripts unbiased and objectively, and to provide my review in a timely manner. My aim is to be constructive with my critique and not to ask for experiments that are not doable or not possible within a reasonable time. I might frame this as 'it would be supportive to do a particular experiment but I understand that this is not achievable within a reasonable timeframe'.


On quality in peer review:

Quality in peer review means being constructive. When this is the case, the manuscript will be improved significantly during revision, which is then a great experience for everyone involved. This also increases confidence, for example for early-career researchers, in the whole review process.


A good review provides a short summary of the key messages, the strengths and weaknesses and groups the assessment into major and minor points. It may also contain advice on how to improve the manuscript by, for example, removing certain passages or experiments if they don't add to the study, or increase the accessibility of the study, which can sometimes simply be a matter of the writing style.


On transparency in peer review:

I find the transparent process at EMBO Press extremely valuable as it provides a quality check when writing a review. It deters reviewers from making vague or derogatory comments that cannot be appropriately addressed by the authors. In addition, it helps to understand potential issues with a paper and areas that are worth further investigation.



Ana Pombo, Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, Berlin, Germany

On being a reviewer:

As a reviewer, I can contribute to the quality of science that is published in my field of research, and train my lab members good values for reviewing.


I expect reviewers to be objective and open minded, and to restrict their comments to their expertise. I wish editors ignored review statements that express what reviewers ‘believe in’ without providing evidence. A real challenge is often the assessment of the most innovative research. This requires reviewers with enough expertise to cover such research, especially in an increasingly multidisciplinary environment, in which manuscripts contain work that crosses from biology, genetics and medicine to maths, physics and statistics.


On quality in peer review:

A good review will clearly identify the weaker points in a manuscript and explicitly state how they have to be corrected. It should be written in a manner that gives authors a fair opportunity to explain themselves. The points should be clearly indicated in a non-judgmental style. Importantly, the expected line of action to successfully answer the criticism should be indicated, avoiding complaining towards the authors. A good review should also consider the impact of the publication on its field. For example, corrections should be asked for if the manuscript claims discoveries that have been made before (e.g. authors do not cite older literature), or if it overstates a discovery in a manner that will close further research by others.


On transparency in peer review:

I am fan of transparent peer review – it especially serves authors that wish to publish work that may challenge the status quo, or in fields that are over-competitive and the chances of finding benign reviewers is lower. The realization that the review may end up published forces the reviewer to stay closer to ethical principles.



Kwon-Sik Park, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, United States


On being a reviewer:

I consider it a privilege to participate in the peer-review process that helps to important discoveries to be disseminated. As a reviewer, I feel a sense of belonging to a larger community of biomedical scientists, and I have the opportunity to have firsthand knowledge of the latest developments and trends in the fast-moving field of cancer research. To be an effective reviewer, it is important to use the guidelines from journals and apply objectivity and fairness to constructive critique whenever possible.


On quality in peer review:

Quality peer review is very important and generally is clearly written and has constructive comments. No review is more persuasive than a structured review that covers several basic elements, while being specific, consistent, and considerate. After all, the peer review process should be designed to help authors publish better science. Additionally, timeliness is another important aspect.


On transparency in peer review:

The transparent peer review process employed at EMBO Press, which includes the chance of cross-commenting on reviewer comments and author replies, is valuable in that it strengthens the rigour of reviews for objectivity and fairness, and it helps authors to have confidence in the review process.  



Lena Claesson-Welsh, Uppsala University, Sweden

On being a reviewer:

I review papers for several reasons: I need my own submissions reviewed, I learn about where the field is moving, new technologies, reagents and so on, and I also find out more about the journal, its principles and ambition.


When I review, I first of all want to see beyond the experimental details to focus on the larger picture and the concepts the authors wish to address and how they relate to where the field is moving. If there are conceptual problems, these belong to my major criticisms. I want to be fair and not force the authors to try to solve something that is essentially impossible to do, especially within a deadline. It is bad when authors feel compelled to scramble up shaky results in no time, leading to unfounded conclusions. I try to suggest how my comments can be addressed. I don’t want to list page up and down with technical details. If there are too many technical issues and consistent errors, they should be mentioned but then it’s better to recommend rejection.


On quality in peer review:

Peer review is important because it improves the quality of the papers and, in the long run, promotes more sound science. For me, quality in peer review means that the reviewer knows the field and can appreciate the authors’ goal and efforts and provide constructive criticism. A reviewer should also be open to new ideas and concepts if they are well underbuilt. Moreover, quality means that the editor forms an independent impression and can take a decision and withstand unreasonable, unfair criticism.


A good review is when the reviewer’s intention is to help you improve the work. That’s normally clear from the type and style of comments. Criticism should be worded in positive manner and one should avoid diminishing the authors’ efforts. Giving suggestions for how the criticism can be addressed is useful. And one should always take the authors’ perspective into consideration.


On transparency in peer review:

I consider the transparent peer review process valuable since it most likely motivates reviewers to give their comments in a more constructive manner. It is also important that EMBO Press provides all material used for the editorial decision-making. Especially for younger PIs this is very valuable.


The transparency takes some of the reviewer anonymity away, which forces the reviewers to be more careful in their wording. The anonymity cannot be entirely removed as it would make it harder to give stern criticism and reject papers that must be rejected.





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Tilmann KießlingTilmann Kießling
Head, Communications
T. + 49 160 9019 3839