Behind the scenes at Nature Reviews Psychology: Peer review edition

The goals of a Review-type paper are very different from the goals of a paper reporting original research, so the goals of peer review are also distinct! We provide a lot of editorial guidance to both reviewers and authors so that peer review truly improves each paper.

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Nature Reviews editors are more hands-on than editors at other journals. Before reviewers even lay eyes on the paper the editor will have provided multiple rounds of detailed feedback. In fact, that’s what most of us love about our jobs: working collaboratively with authors to produce the best possible paper on a topic that will be accessible to the broadest possible segment of the journal’s readership.

However, for most of our authors this will be a new experience. So we want to shed a little light on our process, what we do, and why we believe it helps us publish great papers, in a series of posts that take you behind the scenes of Nature Reviews Psychology.

Today’s installment: peer review

By this point in the process, an author has received editorial feedback on their synopsis and their full draft. Now it’s time for subject-matter experts to provide their feedback on the paper through the peer review process.

As editors, we have already spent many hours thinking about the scope of the paper and how it is structured. And while all of the Nature Reviews Psychology editors themselves have a PhD in Psychology, most of the papers we handle are not in our specific areas of expertise. As with any other published paper, our peer-review process brings in experts to evaluate if the paper accomplishes its goals.

The job of a peer reviewer
The goals of a Review-type paper are very different from the goals of a paper reporting an empirical research study, so the goals of peer review are also distinct! For one thing, Review-type articles do not report any original analyses, so there are no methodological details or statistical analyses to evaluate. Instead, papers in our journal should organize, synthesize, and critically discuss the literature, as well as convey recommendations for future research in the field.

Our instructions to reviewers largely echo the same elements we ask authors to provide when they propose writing for us. First, the science. We ask reviewers whether the scope of the article is clear and whether the coverage of material is accurate and balanced, both within the specific topic area and across the broader context of the field.

The next major aspect of the paper that peer reviewers are asked to consider is its timeliness: Does the article provide a needed update, a novel synthesis, or a unique angle? If reviewers are enthusiastic about the author’s treatment of the topic, that is a good sign that it will be a valuable resource for readers when it is published.

Finally, we ask reviewers to evaluate how the paper might be received by our broad audience of researchers, academics, and clinicians across psychology. Ideally the text will already be clear and the concepts accessible, but if not we want to know! In the end, we want papers to strike a balance between authoritative and accessible so that a broad audience can benefit from their insights. That said, reviewers do not need to worry about catching typos, run-on sentences, or grammatical mistakes. Any and all of these will be taken care of when the paper undergoes a detailed edit before publication.

When inviting reviewers, we aim to secure experts in each major topic covered by the paper, so that we can hear multiple perspectives on how the paper is situated, any theoretical perspectives it conveys, and whether it covers the relevant literature. We also invite reviewers from different backgrounds, geographical locations, genders, and career stages, because all of these aspects can affect how a researcher perceives and evaluates a paper. Just as we value a range of viewpoints from our authors, we value diversity in the peer review process as well.

Editorial guidance for the revision
At many journals, it is typical for the editor to compile the reports, make a recommendation (reject/revise/accept) and then provide some brief overarching notes on themes or points of contention across the reviewers. We take this process one step further by annotating the peer-review reports with editorial comments on individual points of feedback.

The majority of our papers will go back to authors for a revision and we want that revision to be as productive as possible. So if Reviewer 1 asks for coverage of a particular topic to be expanded but Reviewer 3 asks for it to be condensed, we suggest to the authors what we think will work better in the broader context of the paper. If Reviewer 2 seems to be asking for the paper to be refocused around their favourite topic or wants 1000 words added to discuss a tangential issue, we might tell authors that they can politely decline that particular piece of feedback. We’ve all read (or written!) papers that end up with a muddied focus or a disjointed narrative after peer review. Our aim is to prevent this outcome, making sure that the revised paper doesn’t end up like Frankenstein’s monster, with parts that don’t match and odd bits sticking out. 

At the end of the day, the peer review process should always improve a paper. As editors, with the peer reviews in hand, we look at the paper in detail and consider the perspective of all of the reviewers so we can highlight the revisions that are most likely to strengthen the paper’s insight, clarity, and relevance. We help authors develop a plan for how they will revise, so they can revise their paper with confidence.

Teresa Schubert

Associate Editor, Nature Reviews Psychology

Teresa completed her PhD in cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA, studying cognitive processes of visual recognition with a focus in deficits of reading and writing. She then joined the Cognitive Science department at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, as a post-doctoral fellow, studying developmental dyslexia and typical reading acquisition. She continued to study visual recognition of letters and objects as a post-doctoral fellow in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. She was subsequently a freelance editor for psychology and cognitive neuroscience content and a visiting lecturer at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She joined Nature Reviews Psychology as an Associate Editor in 2021.