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Guidelines for doctoral peer review of writing

By Susan Carter

Doctoral peer review of each other’s writing is something that we discuss from time to time on this blog. We have covered  practical issues and Dr Pia Lappalainen, as she described a course for doctoral candidates hosted at the Aalto University in Finland, included an extensive list of steps to support peer review.

I have been prompted to review this list against two other writing group guides because, as I commenced 2023 with a doctoral writing group that mostly peer review, we reconsidered  reviewing guidelines in our first meeting.

In my experience it can be hard to get a peer review group that really bonds, with a strong trust factor, and the likelihood of feedback that is genuinely helpful in terms of the ability to improve writing, and also in terms of emotional support. So here I’m drawing on the two earlier posts, and introducing another one that has long-standing use at the University of Auckland, as a way of opening up some of the knotty issues in the practice of peer review.

A certain amount of professional skill is needed to ensure writing quality (see Aitchison & Guerin, 2014), and a certain amount of informality to ensure that those involved are relaxed enough to work productively (see Thesen, 2014). From there, each member contributes to the soul of the group, and if this is achieved, something magical occurs that is likely to be remembered warmly for ever by most members.

This year, too, I’m aware of how much experience and talent members of our doctoral peer review group share. That has not always been the case in all the groups I’ve hosted over the years. I see it as likely that when peer review guidelines are reconsidered, they may well be changed substantially to best fit the individuals involved. The experience and preferences of the doctoral writers involved should direct practice.

First, then, there’s two examples that I’ve used before in various iterations. I initiated the second one (and used it as the basis of the earlier post cited above), but inherited the first from within a peer review group without knowing who the originator was. In a long-running group of women academics, we reviewed it annually.

Following these one page guides is Pia’s detailed guides for peer review. These are terrifically useful for practitioners who want to teach about writing. I am hoping that the combination of these three examples will give a strong start to writing your own guidelines for doctoral peer review.

Version 1: Ground-Rules for peer review group

Joining this doctoral writing group is a commitment to attending every meeting unless it’s impossible (eg you’re overseas, you’re ill, someone you care for is ill). Being in a writing group requires we take care of ourselves and each other in the following ways.

Before meetings:

  • If you can’t attend, send apologies to [organiser’s name] 

  • Do the preparation if there is some. The agreed norm for preparation time when giving feedback on a manuscript is at least one hour of reading/commenting (although it is fine to do more).

  • If you are sending out work for feedback, send it a week before the meeting.

  • Always give clear guidelines in your email about what feedback you are looking for (and what you do not want, like proofreading) so that you get help with what you want along with other comments. Specify timeframe you are working to (if you have one) and what questions/concerns you have the piece.

  • If you can’t attend a meeting where feedback is to be given, consider giving some feedback to the writer by email or over coffee (to maintain reciprocity).

  • Stay with the feedback process (three-stage round: questions for clarification, what you liked, what could improve the work, engaging with writer’s questions/concerns).

  • Share speaking space with others (which may mean sometimes using a post-meeting email to add more input to a discussion).

  • Let things go (ie don’t repeat your feedback, see it as a gift – it’s not our responsibility to get someone else’s writing ‘right’).

  • Watch body language and hold back if the person receiving feedback appears ‘full’.

  • It’s ok to say “that’s enough” when you are receiving feedback.

  • Agree on agenda for next meeting.

  • Confidentiality

  • Visitors: contact the facilitator if you’d like to bring a visitor (note: whomever is getting feedback on their writing will be asked for their permission).

Version 2: Rules of engagement for peer review

Watch out for emotions: You will get the most from the session if you are open to critical feedback, but try to gauge how much advice works best for you as an individual. Then as a reviewer take care according to the sensitivity climate. Humans have a tendency to be critical rather than praising: we are trained as researchers to do this. Remember that in this case reviewers must talk about what works well as well as giving constructive feedback for improvement: begin with what works well. Ending on a reaffirmation is often recommended too.

Be concrete and specific about what has worked well: group talk about exactly what we like gives pointers to improving writing. It has benefits beyond the emotional boost for the writer. Encourage sharing of good rhetoric with the whole group.

Writers can ask for specific areas to be given thought:

  • Is the structure ok—does this tell a coherent story?

  • Are you convinced by the X section?

  • Do I need to explain more about Z—what looks most valuable to you?

  • Is this just too simplistic?

  • Is this too obscure and hard to read?

  • Do I sound authoritative and expert?

  • Could you watch for grammar or punctuation problems?

  • Please suggest better words, phrasing or framing.

As a reader follow the writer’s direction.

You could also look for other stylistic qualities.

  • Are there any times when the tone slips, for example, when language becomes too informal, or too stilted or too obscure or too naive?

  • Are there any disjunctive colloquialisms? Any dead clichés? Or any words that you suspect may be problematic in raising unanswered questions.

  • Is the tension right? Could the prose be tightened: is it too loose with many sentences yielding little of real value? Or is it too tight and dense to be understandable?

  • Is the level of definition and explanation right? Are there any points when you need more explanation? Or are there places where there is too much spelt out so that this detracts from the flow of ideas?

  • Are there repeats at word level or in sentence structure that would be better avoided?

  • Are there any sentences that are too long and complex? If so, suggest a way of splitting giant mutant sentences into more than one.

  • Are there times when emphasis seems inaccurate?

  • Could you add any suggestions at times when ideas seem promising but not fully developed?

The golden rule in peer review is to offer any suggestions that you can. Whenever a sentence is hard to follow, indicate this, and offer a way of clarifying it if you can see this clearly. It is so helpful when reviewers restructure, or find a more precise word, or ask questions that drive the author to see what is missing. The author has the option of rejecting suggestions, but will get something of value: a truthful view of their own writing through another (friendly and helpful) reader’s eyes.

Version 3: Pia Lappalainen’s support for doctoral writers hits all the targets for me, and sounds exemplary. It seems that how to give good peer review feedback is also taught: she writes “Naturally the knowledge accumulated from previous sessions makes their critique more elaborate each time and turns surface-level commentary based on newly gained information into deeper analysis through iterative reflection of the key topics covered in the course.” And looking through the checklists for the found peer critique sessions we can see how significant learning would occur:

Session 1 checklist Introduction and Abstract  
  Does the research topic sound relevant and motivating?
  Does the text follow a logical pattern?
  Do you understand the research gap the author aims to fill?
  Are the research aims clearly articulated?
  Does its paragraphing facilitate readability?
  Are the key terms and concepts explained briefly?
Session 2 checklist Style  
  Weak verbs versus dynamic, descriptive, strong verbs
  Phrasal verbs versus Latinate verbs
  Contracted forms
  Passive versus active voice
  Colloquial versus academic adjectives, nouns, verbs
  Intensifiers replaced with stronger claims
  Negative versus positive assertions
  Direct or indirect questions versus assertive claims
Session 3 checklist Data commentary  
  Verb choices support strength of claim
  Phrasal verbs versus Latinate verbs
  Passive verbs versus active verbs
  Verb tenses support reporting voices
  Mechanistic versus synthesizing commentary
  Hedging used selectively and effectively
Session 4 checklist Coherence and readability  
  Wordiness versus concision
  Reduced instead of full relative clauses
  Audience-grabbing and effective topic sentences
  Evidence sentences logically connected and back up the claim
  Conjunctions used logically and sufficiently, also in mid-sentence
  Punctuation used correctly

I know from back when I taught punctuation and grammar how much I learned myself from looking at examples and pondering on the best way to teach this material. But now I wonder whether the doctoral peer review group I am in would benefit from Pia’s checklist. And I think I will send it through and then maybe adapt it just a little. A list like this gives writers the opportunity to get to grips with grammar terminology as well as with what reads well.

If you have suggestions on good guidelines for doctoral peer review, please leave them by using the comments function–it seems to me that good doctoral peer review is complex and finding ways to support it quite helpful.


Aitchison, C., & Guerin, C. (2014). Writing groups, pedagogy, theory, practice: An introduction. In C. Aitchison & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Theory and Practice. Routledge.

Lappalainen, P. (posted Tuesday 3 October, 2017). “Writing doctoral research: Learning through peer critique and feedback. DoctoralWriting, Available at https://doctoralwriting.wordpress.com/2017/10/03/writing-doctoral-research-learning-through-peer-critique-and-feedback/

Thesen, L. (2014). ‘If they’re not laughing, watch out!’: Emotion and risk in postgraduate writing groups. In C. Aitcheson & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for the doctorate and beyond: Innovations in practice and theory (pp. 172-176).

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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