Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research

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Peer reviewing research

Welcome to our toolkit for peer reviewing health research!

Using the resources you find here will help you decide whether a research manuscript contains enough detail to judge its quality

Reporting guidelines in peer review

Reporting guidelines are tools for health researchers to use while writing manuscripts. They provide minimum lists of information needed to ensure a manuscript can be

  • Understood by a reader,
  • Replicated by a researcher,
  • Used by a doctor to make a clinical decision, and
  • Included in a systematic review.

Reporting guidelines are also helpful for reviewers. If the information required by a reporting guideline is not included in a manuscript, then you cannot properly judge the quality of that study. In 2012, we found that around 35% of journals offered freely accessible online instructions about their peer review process and, of those, about half mentioned reporting guidelines.

Identifying the right reporting guideline

Some journals ask their authors to complete the appropriate reporting guideline checklist on submission, and pass these on to their peer reviewers. Other journals ask their peer reviewers to identify an appropriate reporting guideline themselves and take it into account when reviewing. Even if your journal hasn’t mentioned reporting guidelines, you’ll still find them useful in your review.

Use our toolkit to find the right reporting guideline for the manuscript you are reviewing. If you are struggling to figure out what kind of study the authors have done, the following definitions may help:

  • If the manuscript reports the design of a study that hasn’t yet been done, it is a protocol
  • If the manuscript reports on a collection of the existing literature, it is a review
    • If the authors set some inclusion criteria, then collected all relevant articles for including in their review, it is a systematic review
    • If the authors picked a representative collection of articles to include in their review, it is a narrative review
  • Qualitative research collects descriptive data, such as unstructured interviews, a story, or a case study
  • Quantitative research collects numerical data, such as height and weight
  • If the manuscript looks at how cost effective an intervention is, it is an economic evaluation
  • If the manuscript tells the story of one patient, or a group of similar patients, then it describes a case study or a series of case studies
  • If the manuscript describes research into an intervention, treatment, risk factor, or exposure, and the participants were selected after they received the intervention/exposure/etc. under study, the manuscript describes observational research
  • If the manuscript describes research into an intervention, treatment, risk factor, or exposure, the participants were selected before they received the intervention/exposure/etc. under study, and the researchers did not allocate which intervention/exposure/etc. they received (they decided/their doctor decided/life just happened), then the manuscript describes observational research
  • If the manuscript describes research into an intervention or treatment, the participants were selected before they received the intervention, the researchers allocated which intervention they each received, and the researchers used a non-random way to decide which intervention they each received (e.g., based on symptoms), the manuscript describes a non-randomised trial
  • If the manuscript describes research into an intervention or treatment, the participants were selected before they received the intervention, the researchers allocated which intervention they each received, and the researchers used a random allocation to decide which intervention they each received, the manuscript describes a randomised controlled trial

Using reporting guidelines to check completeness

Once you have identified the right guideline, you’re ready to start your completeness check. Go through the guideline item by item. Check whether each item is discussed fully in the manuscript.

The authors don’t have to have done every item, they just have to have discussed it. For example, say you are reviewing a randomised controlled trial and are checking for completeness using CONSORT. Item 11a asks about blinding. The authors may not have been able to blind their participants, due to the nature of the intervention. This is absolutely fine! However, the authors do need to state in the manuscript that participants were not blinded, and why.

Make a note of every item that is missing or incompletely discussed. Do you have enough information to be able to peer review this article, or is it reported so incompletely that you can stop your review straight away? If many important items have been left out, you might want to send your annotated guideline to the editor and ask them whether they would like to stop the review process and get the authors to resubmit a complete manuscript that can be judged.

If the journal you are peer reviewing uses reporting guideline checklists and sent you a completed one from the authors, the checking job is made even easier. The completed checklist should show the page on which each piece of information is listed. Authors might list some items as not applicable. Use your judgement as to whether information in the paper makes clear why an item is not applicable, or whether the authors need to address the point explicitly in the manuscript. Remember, future readers will only have access to the manuscript, not the authors for clarification, so every item needs to be fully explained in the manuscript!

Once you have completed your initial check using a reporting guideline, you’re ready to critically appraise the manuscript.

We hope you find the contents of this toolkit helpful. If you have any questions or concerns, please get in touch with the EQUATOR Network team by email, on Twitter, or on Facebook. We welcome any extra training materials or literature collections that you have found useful in your peer review!

This page was last updated on 16 July 2018