BNFO 300 
Molecular Biology Through Discovery
How to critique the work of others
Fall 2013 

Be not afraid
When you are given the work of others to review, perhaps a research proposal or a summary of an experiment, your first tendency may be to read it and cry out, "What do I know? I am insufficient!" This is a useless reaction. Rather, look outwards "This person needs someone. How can I be helpful?" Actually, your level of ignorance gives you a great advantage. You come to the work uncontaminated by prior knowledge, able more accurately to respond to what the author's words say (rather than what you think they should say). Don't squander that advantage by worrying about how you look. Just do it. Look at the words.

Steps in reviewing

  • Review the goals  
  • Skim the work
    Once through quickly just to catch the drift of where the author's going.
  • Read the work
    A bit slower this time, comparing what it says with the given aims of the proposal. You might want to highlight important points, but no heavy editing or anything that will slow you down.
  • Read the proposal critically for content and story
    "Critically", of course, does not mean "nasty". Rather, it means putting the proposal under a magnifying glass and politely but firmly offering the author the benefit of your reations. Specifically:
    • Context: Are you given a large, comprehensible issue in which the experiment presented is a small part?
    • Justification: Is every assertion justified by either a direct observation or a reference to a published article? Pause after every phrase and ask "How do you know that?", and if you can find no answer WRITE THAT DOWN.
    • No magic: Don't tolerate appeals to magical procedures (e.g., "Gene expression was measured by atomic absorption phlogoraphy"). If you can't visualize how the procedure produces its results, call for an explanation.
    • Overall Focus: Review the name of this course. Does the work your considering focus on molecular biology and not, for example, microsopy or medicine?
    • Specific Focus: Do you find a central question -- a question that can be addressed by a single experiment and one that lies at the center of a coherent story? Can you state that central question? If not, WRITE THAT DOWN. Do you see how what you're reading relates to that central question? Pause after every phrase and ask "Why am I reading this? Where is this going? What is the point?", and if you can find no answer WRITE THAT DOWN.

    Should you read a cited article? It often helps to do so, particularly when a description of it is too confused to understand. But it is undoubtedly extra work. You need to decide.
  • Read the proposal critically for style
    • Organization: Does each paragraph have an obvious purpose?
    • Direction: Do you sense a story begin told?
    • Economy: Is each paragraph coherent, with no wasted words?
    • Expression: Do sentences sound right? If not, can you point out the problem?
    • Grammer/spelling: Not the most important thing in the world, but if you see something, do the person a favor and point it out or correct it.
  • Summarize
    Write a brief summary, starting out with your main impression of the proposal and its progress in meeting its goals. Comment on major strengths as well as weaknesses. Leave the small stuff for the end.

General Advice

  • Be specific
    Saying things like, "Not clear!" generally doesn't help. Presumably the author thought it was clear. Pinpoint the problem. It's often a good idea to suggest a specific alternative.
  • Be constructive
    Recognize that your primary goal is not to find faults but to help the author find solutions.
    Even the rankest tripe, if sincerely written, may a stepping stone to something better. Never write anything that is not rooted in love. However, it is not kind to say, "Looks great!" when it does not look great. That's just an easy way out.