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Source: Mostly abstracted form Michaelson, H.B.: "How to write and publish engineering papers and reports". 3rd Ed., Oryx Press. 1990. ISBN 0-89744-650-3. Chap. 21.
Serving as a critic can help your own writing and publishing efforts. Here are some of the peculiar benefits you may have not have anticipated:
- Writing a referee's report will sharpen your critical faculty. This sensitizes you, more than ever, to structural faults and technical weaknesses in manuscripts. In subtle ways, these increased sensitivities will strengthen your future writing and your ability to criticize your own work.
- Reading novel and unpublished results in your field becomes a fruitful source for developing new ideas and interpretations in future papers of your own.
- Becoming a referee and offering advice establishes a new relation between you and the journal editor. This tends to give the editor more confidence in papers you submit in the future.
As a referee you will be giving a technical assessment for the editor and also providing a typical reader's reaction to the paper. Moreover, in judging the value of the paper and its suitability for publication, you help to protect the integrity and reputation of the journal. At the same time you will be rendering a service to the journal's readers by screening material according to their needs and interests. Finally, your review may aid the author by giving constructive suggestions for upgrading the manuscript and perhaps the engineering work itself. And so your recommendations can be an indirect contribution to the engineering community.
However, the ultimate consideration for the technical review is its value to the engineering community, i.e., the journal readers. And a referee's report also serves an excellent purpose when it offers constructive help to enhance the professional reputation of the engineering author.
Your Role as a Critic
The very first step in your review procedure should be to look at the manuscript and decide whether you are the right person to review it (depending on your qualifications or any potential conflict of interest). If you are not, return it to the editor promptly. If you do feel qualified, the next important step is to scan a few recent issues of the journal (unless you read it regularly). The current selection of papers published is evidence of the present editorial policies, which may have changed recently. The table of contents also indicates the interest of the readership.
If you do not fully understand these two items - editorial policy and reader interests - you will be poorly equipped to review the manuscript. Of course, the editor has made an initial assessment on suitability before sending it to you. The editor, however, always depends on you for a "fine tuning" of that preliminary judgment. To attempt to review the paper on its own merits without examining the journal, then, is a thoughtless way to proceed, regardless of your judging criteria.
It is also important to make sure your judgement is objective.
Before examining the details of the paper you should first decide about its general suitability for the readership. The subject, of course, must fall within the range of topics ordinarily covered in the journal, and the technical level of the writing must obviously be appropriate. But there are other aspects of suitability. For example, would the paper fill a need for readers and is the author's new technique actually of current interest? Remember that accuracy and validity of a paper are not sufficient reasons to publish in a particular journal if the information seems of no use to readers and would have little value to them for future reference.
If the paper reports new information of some kind - either descriptive or analytic - the author should refer meticulously to previously published results. The way a writer mentions prior articles always deserves close examination. For example, are the deficiencies and limitations of previous work shown? Are important contributions to the literature acknowledged? Are the references sensibly selected and accurately cited? Is their relation to the author's present work clearly indicated? The manuscript should satisfy these questions. The author of a weak paper (at least in some kinds of engineering magazines) often ignores or even evades the issue of prior work. As a reviewer you should suggest any relevant published work that you find missing in the manuscript.
Another question concerns the manuscript as a whole: Does it adequately serve its purpose? Engineering manuscripts may describe methods for designing a device or system, show properties of engineering materials, offer new measurement techniques, analyze problems, make recommendations for new projects, etc. Whatever the purpose, the paper must clearly define its basic concept, offer accurate data, and give valid conclusions. An assessment of the way these three elements of information are organized in the manuscript is one of your main responsibilities.
One way to determine whether the manuscript is logically organized and whether its important points are properly emphasized is to examine the relative length of the sections and the author's choice of figures. When too much space is devoted to peripheral explanations and too many side issues are illustrated in the figures, you will sense that the paper is out of kilter and should recommend ways to bring it into balance.
One of the most important criteria is the way the data are presented. The statistical treatment of the data usually deserves care because in many cases it is the main support for the author's contribution.
Your Role as a Contributor
Your report to the editor is, of course, a personal opinion and the commentary need not be confined to the items listed below. Sound judgments will be partly based on your intuition about the actual value of the manuscript. Constructive suggestions can be a real help to the editor and can become an anonymous contribution to the paper when you cite items like the following and suggest how the author can make changes or additions:
- A significant technical omission in the manuscript.
- An important error, experimental or analytic, in the engineering work.
- A new and different interpretation of the author's results.
When equipped with your observations the author has the opportunity to upgrade the paper. Revision may require that an experiment be redone to get better data or more information. Or your report may influence the author to do some rethinking and rewriting that will better illuminate the paper with the ingenuity and beauty of the engineering accomplishment. In any case publication of the revised paper will give you the satisfaction of having contributed useful ideas.
A journal editor will quickly appreciate the difference between such a referee's report and one that only provides numerous trivial comments. The editor is the final judge, who compares the weighs the reports of the referees and makes a final decision, however complex, on the pros and cons of accepting the manuscript.
For the journal editor a careful evaluation by an expert referee will define the virtues and defects of a submitted paper.
A referee's critical comments, either positive or negative, can be a source of technical improvement, and even of new ideas, for the author to inject into the manuscript. Thus a critique, in addition to identifying technical errors and stylistic defects, can provide fresh insight.
Evaluating papers can be a chore but may also turn out to be a boom for the referee. Having an early look at unpublished works offers the critic advance information on new developments. Moreover the expert who is called upon for a professional opinion can find an intellectual stimulus in new concepts and novel refinements of previously reported work. Of course, a referee is expected to adhere to the ethics of reviewing by respecting the author's rights of confidentiality prior to actual publication of the paper.
Excessive fault finding
An intensive search for superficial faults can be used deliberately as a basis for rejecting a manuscript. But when indulging in such trivia the referee may overlook the chief technical virtues of a paper.
Prejudice or bias
The referee's preconceived notions or preferences can color the critique. The professional practice, of course, is to review papers on a high ethical plane, but subconscious bias can creep into the evaluation.
A referee's recommendations, when phrased in general terms and unsupported by statements of the reasons, are not helpful. This is true for either favorable or unfavorable comments like "This paper is a contribution and should be published" or "The author's conclusions are not valid." Such remarks will be of little value unless the referee explains what the author's contribution is or why certain claims are not valid. Even though editor and author should accept the judgments offered by an expert, the rationales for those opinions will be illuminating, especially when the independent judgments of two referees are poles apart.
- Is the subject of interest?
- Is the work worthwhile, novel, unique?
- Has the work progressed sufficiently to justify publication?
- Would publication be timely?
- Is the reader properly oriented in the introductory section?
- Is the basic concept presented clearly?
- Does the author show adequate background knowledge?
- If data are given, is the volume sufficient and are the methods adequate to yield significant results?
- Are the vagaries of experimental conditions accounted for?
- Are the conclusions (or recommendations) based on the data given?
- Is the length of each section proportional to its importance?
- Is proper space devoted to interpretation and discussion?
- Are the significant results emphasized?
- Are the limitations of the results shown?
- Is appropriate credit given to others who have worked in the specific field?
Standards of Acceptance
In essence, the most important criteria by which to judge the papers should be simply: is the information useful to a wide readership and clearly written? Other useful considerations are:
- Is the language acceptable (good grammar, style, punctuation, and vocabulary)?
- Are the mechanics correct? ie. do the references in the text correspond to those in the reference section? Are the figures referred to present, and do they convey the needed information clearly?
- Is it a thought-provoking study that contributes to the planning, analysis, design, construction, management or maintenance of civil engineering works/models in the area of interest?
- Is it free from purely speculative matter (this does not exclude the use of scientific evidence to challenge current concepts or propose new ideas that will encourage progress and discussion)?
- Is it free of evident commercialism or private interest (while not obscuring proper names when they are required for an understanding of the subject matter) and free of material that can be used to imply endorsement by the editors or sponsors of products, services and so on?
- Is it free of personalities, either complimentary or derogatory? and
- Does it cover material not readily available elsewhere (i.e. it should not have been previously published, unless the material is significantly revised, updated or condensed to make it more useful than the original)?
Elsewhere on our web pages to help in the review process is:
- short, but hopefully helpful info taken from HOW TO WRITE AND PUBLISH ENGINEERING PAPERS AND REPORTS by H.B. Michaelson, Onyx Press, 1990.
- the flyer for the conference, describing the theme and topics of interest (go to CHI's website).
Acknowledgment: items 3-7 above have been paraphrased from standards described in the Editors' and Reviewers' Guide to the Journals of ASCE.
Categories of Acceptance and Decline include:
- Accept in present form (might include some marked-up minor typo/grammatical changes)
- Accept, author should consider suggested revisions
- Tentatively accept, revision required; or
Please note: Your written comments, and the annotations that you make on the manuscript, are usually returned to the author(s), so please bear this in mind when phrasing your remarks!