42

In my field, peer reviewers often start their review with:

This article reports on a study that did X, using Y, in the area of Z. It found ...

This seems like a waste of time and effort to me (and I never do it). Why is it done? To prove the reviewer has read the paper?

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    Probably to prove that they read the paper... Sometimes spelling errors are apparently reported for the same purpose. – Willem Van Onsem Apr 8 '15 at 15:42
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    It is important/fair play to give the authors a chance to rebute your understanding of their work. – user189035 Apr 8 '15 at 19:03
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    In addition to what user6726 said (the main reason: summarize for the editor), it also gives the authors a chance to verify that their paper reads the way they intended it to. Maybe the reviewer misunderstood the main message / main point and his summary will reflect this. – Szabolcs Apr 9 '15 at 16:13
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    I also do this for specific points I want to raise. Many times and for many reasons (the simplest being the author's English is not great) criticisms might just be the product of misunderstanding. – Miguel Apr 9 '15 at 18:49
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    In IOP journals, the reviewers are asked to fill a "abstract" box and the "comments" box, but gets compiled to a single document when sent to the authros, if I am not wrong – Ander Biguri Apr 26 '17 at 13:56
85

Reviews are communications to the editor, and an effective review tells the editor what the article is about (in that reviewer's opinion), using significantly fewer words than authors typically use. If an editor has to process a couple hundred submissions per year, it's not possible for him/her to carefully read every paper, so the editor will especially care if the reviewers agree on what the paper purports to show and whether the paper actually shows it.

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    I wholeheartedly agree. In addition, writing a summary can be useful to the authors as well, particularly if the paper is rejected. Reading the summary, I can see whether the reviewer understood the basic point of the paper but found it uninteresting, or whether I failed to convey why the paper is interesting, important, and novel. Even if the paper is accepted it can be useful; once or twice I've received a reviewer summary so good that I've gone back to modify my abstract and/or introduction to explain my work more the way that the reviewer did. – Corvus Apr 8 '15 at 6:37
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    Redundancy also helps to detect and correct mistakes: I twice experienced that manuscripts were messed up: once as author receiving a review (without summary) of a paper that couldn't have been ours; once as reviewer (there were difficulties with the online system and my report somehow got attached to a wrong submission) - this the authors spotted by title and summary at the beginning of my report, which also enabled the editor to sort out things: send me the manuscript I hadn't received and forward my report as additional review to the authors of the manuscript I had actually received. – cbeleites Apr 8 '15 at 14:32
  • In my area, the review form of journals has two text boxes: (i) confidential comments to the editor, and (ii) comments for the authors. I only provide a summary to the editor, but not to the authors. Having said that, if a summary in textbox (ii) exists, I suspect it is there for padding purpose. – Prof. Santa Claus Apr 25 '17 at 9:52
52

I always start my reviews with a summary, as a way of establishing that I have understood the key ideas of the paper. I feel that this then places me on firmer ground in any subsequent praise or criticism.

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    I agree. And the times where I had trouble writing this two or three line summary, I knew the paper had a problem. – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 8 '15 at 10:59
11

I'll (cautiously) agree that this summary may be superfluous. In the best of all possible worlds, this exact information should be in the manuscript's abstract, which is at the editor's fingertips when he reads the review and makes a decision on the manuscript.

Sometimes, rarely, I find myself in this best of all possible worlds and find that I can't express the paper's contents in a better way than the authors did in their abstract. In such a case, I'll happily write

For the contents of the manuscript, see its abstract.

as the first paragraph of my review. (I then proceed to show that I actually did read the entire paper, by writing a clear and detailed review, and that this first paragraph is not laziness on my part. Writing a summary of the paper has a signaling function: it signals to the editor that you (a) actually read the paper, and (b) are not too lazy to summarize it.)

Usually, I find that (I think that) I can summarize the paper better than the abstract did - for instance, if the authors wrote a "teaser abstract", where they write what question they investigate but do not give their results, so people have to dig into the actual paper to find out what the results were. In such a case, I'll write such a summary, and usually recommend that the abstract be improved.


(EDIT) Here is what Jeff Leek, one of the bigger names in statistics writes on the topic in this highly recommended text on how he wants members of his group to review papers:

I think the summary is critical because if you can't distill the ideas down then you haven't really understood the paper. The summary should absolutely not be a restatement of the abstract of the paper, you should find the parts you think are most relevant and include them in the summary.

1

As others have said, there's reasons for this that aren't just superfluous:

  1. It indicates that you did indeed read the paper
  2. It signals what someone who gave the paper more than a cursory reading thinks the paper is about.

That second point is a pretty serious one - if a reviewer "missed your message", that's a pretty serious problem, and while it may be tempting to just say "Oh, they didn't read it closely enough" it's worth considering that maybe they did, and the point isn't as clear as you thought it was.

That sentence or two is also essentially an executive summary of the review for both the editor and the author(s), and can set the tone for the rest of the review. Consider, for example:

The paper estimates the effect of X on Y under conditions Z, and is largely in line with similar estimates in the literature.

vs.

The paper is an insightful examination of the effect of X on Y under the relatively understudied condition Z, and is a valuable contribution to our understanding of X.

If you were a journal editor with limited space looking for an engaging paper, which would you pick?

0

When the editor receives a lot of reviews at the same time (special issue, special session), this provides a quick sanity check that the different reviews are effectively about the same paper.

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