Writing a referee report


10 February 2010


As an editor, I like to see referee reports comprising three sections:

  1. A general summary of the paper and the contribution it makes. You need to highlight here what is new and interesting about the paper, as well as give a summary in a few sentences.

  2. The major problems that need addressing.  This is probably the most important section of your report where you explain the main problems. The editor will read this very carefully when deciding whether to accept, reject or invite a revision, so you need to make sure that any problems are clearly explained here. If you think the paper should be rejected, then you have to make a good case in this second section. On the other hand, if you think it is a great paper that deserves publication, please explain what is so good about it.

  3. Minor things such as typos or points of clarification. These are often less important issues, but need correcting before publication.

Some referee reports combine sections 2 and 3 and that makes it much harder to figure out what is important and what are minor comments. If the paper is definitely not worth publishing, and you have explained some very serious flaws in section 2, then it is acceptable not to document the more minor issues. In this case, you should explain to the editor that you have chosen not to comment on more minor issues as you didn’t think it worthwhile.

Don’t include a recommendation about whether to publish or not in the report, but add it in your covering note to the editor. This is best as the editor will make a decision based on the comments from all the referees and they may provide conflicting recommendations. Also, it is awkward if all the referees recommend one thing and the editor decides differently. This doesn’t happen very often, but I have sometimes made a decision that is contrary to the advice of all referees.