First Time Peer Review Jitters? Advice From One Reviewer to Another.

Dear Colleagues,

You’ve made it to the big leagues – the (figurative) stack of papers sit in front of you, ready to be ‘peer-reviewed.’  You’ve done it, right?  You’re a peer?

Peer reviewing papers is one of the most important processes in the academic world.  These peers are the gatekeepers to what everyone else will consider adequate for citation.  Before any Wikipedian or college student can refer to the piece in front of you, it has to be approved… by you!

The power that is in your hand is not to be wielded lightly… the world’s collective knowledge depends on your judgment.  Accept?  Reject? Encourage to resubmit?  The fate of the piece in front of you is in your hands.

Perhaps the hyperbole above is a bit too dramatic.  Let’s put this in context.

You, with adequate funding and permission from your boss and/or parents, will be at the Transportation Research Board’s Annual Meeting.  And therefore, you’re my peer.  Always remember that even the ‘experts’ are your peers as well.

Remember that, as peers of this esteemed institution, you are qualified as the ‘peer’ in peer-reviewed.  And your opinions are important.

During my first peer review session with ASCE, I questioned myself.  Am I really qualified to judge these papers? (Yes.)  Can I really provide comment even if I’m not the expert of that material? (Yes.)  What do I tell them in the comments? (The Truth.)

First off, you’ll most likely be qualified to read something if you’ve self-selected yourself on to committees are within your realm of study.  Sometimes we get caught up in our own world, forgetting that the population at large is not the transportation folks that we interact with on a daily basis.  If you only hang out with transportation people with knowledge that sits two standard deviations and higher, like coworkers, researchers, professors, and the train nut in me, then your world is a bit… skewed from normal.

But still, check out that first paper in your stack and ask yourself, is this something that you understand?  Remember that the expert on that paper will be the author, so perfect understanding will only be as good as the words on the (metaphorical) paper.  After your initial scan, perhaps the abstract is starting to make some sense.  You’re probably qualified.

Though, if you’re into policy and cities, and you get something examining the effects of precipitation draining on rural asphalt roads, then maybe reconsider.

Given that you’ve self-qualified yourself to review this paper, perhaps you may think that you cannot provide comment, even though you’re a peer-expert.  Remember that a good paper is constructed well – composition is important.  The author is responsible for clearly communicating their contribution to the web of knowledge, and you’re not responsible for guessing what the author means.  If the author isn’t clear, then you should note that in your comments.

Does the work match the thesis they provide?  (Is there a thesis?)  Do they adequately cite other pieces, and contribute something new?  Is it relevant to the committee?  Then those are good signs that it is a good paper.

Check out Andy’s guide on TRB reviews, check out what TRB has to say about its own reviews.  Be honest, kind, and constructive in your comments.


Raymond Chan