Scientific Communication for Natural Resource Professionals

Chapter 13: The Essentials of Reviewing a Scientific Manuscript

David J. Jude


The most succinct appraisal of the peer-review process was rendered by Red Green in Possum Lodge when he said, “We’re all in this together—I’m pulling for ya” (Smith and Ruffman 2008). The review process is a collective activity, an orchestrated, ritual dance engaged in by the editor, reviewers, and author to produce and advance our science, with side benefits to all participants. For the editor, a prestigious journal; for the author, a published article: the culmination of months of research, data synthesis, and writing; and for reviewers, a chance to serve science and colleagues, to learn about cutting edge ideas and lessons for future articles, and to gain literature reviews in areas of interest. The dance involves humans with personalities that color all interactions. Reviews span the gamut from congenial, helpful, and inspiring to pointlessly nasty, vindictive, and sarcastic; sometimes blatantly wrong advice and critiques are communicated (Jolley and Graeb 2007). The author submits a manuscript; the editor acts as judge; and reviewers provide briefs, which are then used by the judge to make a final decision. Like all adjudication, peer review has its flaws, but it is known to improve manuscripts and correct scientific errors (Goodman et al. 1994; Roberts et al. 1994). Peer review is the best way we have for providing an orderly process for advancing understanding that is critical to make informed, science-based decisions for our species and those over which we hold dominion.

A manuscript submitted for publication is a privileged document, which should not be discussed or shown to colleagues, with exceptions. In some cases, with permission of the editor, consulting a colleague about a particular method, point, or opinion to produce a more accurate review may be helpful. One might also want to obtain assistance of a junior colleague or graduate student to get their input and provide them with experience, something advocated by DeVries et al. (2009). If there is a conflict of interest in the review or a reason why a reviewer cannot be objective in the review, then a reviewer must recuse him- or herself from completing the review. Good ethics promote prestige and integrity for the journal and trust among scientists; it also ensures that the author’s ideas are not disseminated before the peer-review process is complete.