Guidance for BMJ patient reviewers

Patient peer review at The BMJ

If you’re a patient living with disease, or a patient advocate acting on the behalf of someone or for a patient group with a medical condition, we’d like to invite you to take part in a unique initiative. The BMJ has committed to improve the patient centredness of its research, education, and analysis articles by asking patients to comment on them. We’d like you to volunteer to become a “patient reviewer."

If you already review for The BMJ as a researcher or clinician but you are also interested in reviewing as a patient/patient advocate you can do this too. We will, however, need you to register a new account with a different personal email address, using the guidance below so that we can distinguish your role as a patient reviewer versus a traditional peer reviewer.

About peer review

When medical researchers or clinicians complete their study they write a paper presenting their methods, findings, and conclusions and send that to a scientific journal (like The BMJ) to be considered for publication. If the journal’s editors think a paper, review, or commentary, might be suitable they send the paper out to other scientists and specialist experts who research, practice, and publish in the same field asking them to:

  • Comment on its validity – are the research results credible; are the design and methods appropriate? Have the authors drawn on best evidence to support their views, etc
  • Judge its clinical as well as statistical significance - is it an important finding?
  • Determine its originality - are the results new? Does the paper refer properly to work done by others?

The scientists assessing the papers are called referees or reviewers, and the whole process is called peer review. The aim of peer review is to reject poor quality studies, promote good ones, and offer feedback and constructive criticism to researchers so they can improve the clarity and impact of their paper.

About patient peer peview

As a patient reviewer, we will ask you to register your details on our editorial database listing any medical conditions you have had or for which you are a patient advocate (for example, cancer, heart disease, or stroke). Also please indicate if you have special interest and expertise in advancing patient partnership through shared decision making, promoting self management and patient leadership, co designing services, etc.

If a suitable paper is submitted to The BMJ, an editor will search the database looking for patient reviewers with some experience on the topic of the article that is being reviewed. Don’t worry, you don’t need to have any medical or scientific training, because we’ll be asking you to consider a slightly different set of questions than the traditional peer reviewers. As a patient reviewer we’d like you to answer questions like:

  • Is this an issue that matters to you, other patients and carers?
  • Are there any areas relevant to patients and carers that are missing or should be highlighted?
  • If the article is a research paper looking at a new intervention of treatment say if you think it will really work in practice? What challenges might patients face?
  • Are the outcomes measured and issues discussed in the article the ones that are important to patients? Are there others that should have been considered?
  • Do you have any suggestions which might help the author/s strengthen their paper to make it more useful for doctors to share and discuss with patients?

By answering these questions you will be giving the editors your perspective on the patient focused aspects of selected manuscripts, drawing on your experience of a particular topic, condition, or intervention. You will also gain a unique insight into how medical research is conducted and the way educational articles are published for doctors. It’s your opportunity to have a real voice in shaping the way researchers and clinicians act, and to further their understanding on what is most important to, and of benefit to patients. To say thank you, all reviewers get a year's free online subscription to bmj.com. We also name and thank all peer reviewers annually on our website.

Some important issues

Interested in volunteering? Here are a few more things you should know.

  • All unpublished manuscripts are confidential documents. If we invite you to review an article, please do not discuss it with anyone.
  • The BMJ currently asks reviewers to sign their reports so that authors know who has reviewed their work. In the future we hope it will be possible to put all comments from peer reviewers’ on our website (bmj.com) so that all readers can see them.
  • A conflict of interest exists when judgment concerning a primary interest (such as whether a paper is accepted) might be influenced by a secondary interest (for instance the researcher is your doctor or you’ve been paid to be a patient advocate by the sponsor of the study). We will ask you to declare all relevant conflicts of interest.
  • All reviewers are asked to provide their opinion within two weeks of being sent a paper using our online manuscript tracking system. Most medical reviewers provide opinions of between 500 - 1000 words, but its quality not quantity that counts and we are seeking an informed independent viewpoint presented in a clear and constructive way.
  • Because some conditions are more common than others, it might be the case that after volunteering you don’t get asked to do any reviews for quite a while. This is quite normal, even a reviewer in a highly active area like diabetes or cancer might only be asked to review a few papers a year.
  • When a decision is made by the editors on an article, all reviewers are copied into the detailed decision letter sent to the authors and they can see the other reviewers’ comments. You should be aware that editors make the decision about what to publish not reviewers and that research articles, in particular, have a very high rejection rate.
  • Patient peer review is a new initiative for The BMJ. We are taking the lead here and hope other publishers will follow. We apologise in advance if our systems seem impersonal or are not ideally tailored for patient reviewers. We hope to improve things with your feedback and support.
  • We are developing plans to evaluate the impact of patient peer review and will feedback the results in due course.

Ready to volunteer?

We’re glad you’re willing to get started. The first step is to register yourself on our reviewer database. Remember, the software that powers our database was designed to register researchers rather than patients. Once your account is ready, you’ll receive a notification by email if you’ve been asked to review a paper. If you run in to any problems or have any questions that haven’t been answered here, please email Tessa Richards (trichards@bmj.com), and if you have any problems logging onto our system please email papersadmin@bmj.com. Thanks again for volunteering your time and helping to get the patient voice heard.

Additional resources