Below is a list of tips/guidelines I follow when I referee papers. I am making this available in case it is useful to others. I constructed this using various sources (see references below) and my personal experience. This should apply at least to standard astronomy journals. Just to be clear, this is not a discussion about the peer-review process itself. My current opinion is based on a fairly small sample of papers that I co-authored or refereed. Luckily my overall experience has been positive (painful sometimes due to picky referees, but fair and constructive I think).

What is the role of a referee?

  1. To advise the editor on whether the paper is worth publishing in their journal
  2. To evaluate the paper, and advise the editor and authors regarding content and presentation.

Refereeing papers is truly part of the life and job of an academic researcher. This is an important contribution to the quality, accessibility, and perennity of research.

When to accept to referee a paper?

When you are qualified!

Accepting a paper that you are not qualified to referee is… unethical, to say the least. If you have to ask yourself if there is a conflict of interest… there probably is!

As often as possible

Especially at junior level. There are many good reasons to regularly referee papers for journals you publish in. For example getting to know the editors and the journal style.

When refusing to referee a paper (which can happen, of course), it is very helpful to recommend alternative referees if possible. In fact, it is *hard* for an editor to find suitable referees. These days, most papers are very specialised and involve several authors/institutions (for ApJ: 10 authors, 12 pages on average!).

How to referee a paper?

Stick to a reasonable timeline.

Because excessive delays are unpleasant for everyone involved in the peer-review process.

Make an effort.

Invest time and energy in the review. Try hard to understand authors’ point of view and the details of the analysis. There is nothing worse than a careless referee.

Review the work as objectively as you can

Start your report with a concise summary of the paper, to convince yourself, the editor and the authors that you are on the same page and that the paper is understandable.

Follow with a substantive, constructive review. Stay strictly professional and unemotional. The paper should be evaluated for its content (references, clarity, scientific merit, details), quality (originality, timeliness, length, motivation) and presentation (structure, figures, notations, title, abstract, conclusions). Be as specific as you can for every comment, by clearly pointing out what your comment refers to, or by giving examples.

That being said, of course a review is always subjective and biased by one’s experience, skills and research interests. This is unavoidable, but it is essential to fight this and review the paper as objectively as possible.

Finally, your goal as a referee is *not* to rewrite the paper or to check everything in infinite detail. It is to make sure the paper is a clear presentation of an original work that is worth publishing in the journal. You should look for obvious errors, flaws and un-convincing arguments, and suggest ways to fix them. In other words, the referee must respect the intellectual independence of the authors.


A few more words

It is *not* the responsibility of the referee to correct the typos, stylistic or grammatical issues, or even to verify all the equations and results in detail. It is useful to the authors of course, but not the goal of peer-review.

It is *not* ethically acceptable to

  • ask for gratuitous self-citations
  • demand perfection for the details of an analysis
  • ask for significant structural modifications because you would have written the paper differently
  • discuss, develop or act on a paper’s content before it is posted or published
  • make personal comments or strong criticism

Taking research ideas from a paper you referee without citing it is plagiarism.

And once again, in no case is personal criticism appropriate. Never.

Things that are acceptable for a referee:

  • to ask for clarifications and questions, to make sure you have understood the paper. This might trigger suggestions for stylistic or structural clarification or presentation.
  • to point out the stenghts and weaknesses of the paper in terms of structure, presentation and notation. For example suggest to drop or move small sections.
  • to ask for extra work, when additional demonstrations or illustrations are needed to make the paper understandable or believable.


Broken links? Please let me know!