But peer review is complicated. I've only been reviewing for a few years, and have only reviewed 12 papers, so I can't claim to be the world's foremost reviewer of biology manuscripts. What I can provide are the fresh (naive) thoughts of an early career researcher (ECR) and relative newcomer to the reviewing game. I've identified two main problems with writing and receiving peer reviews, and done my best to come up with solutions, after discussion with other ECRs (most notably Alecia Carter and Corina Logan).
PROBLEM 1: Receiving peer reviews can be the most unpleasant piece of text you will read about yourself and your work, ever. Peer reviews rarely congratulate you for good ideas, hard work and gutsy attitude. Instead, they savagely highlight all the flaws. They can be rude, thoughtless and occasionally wrong, and are not a nice final step in the long journey towards a piece of scientific literature.
SOLUTION: I sign all my reviews. Most reviewers don't want to be unpleasant, yet the cloak of anonymity means lapses into clumsy, cruel criticism do not have consequences. By signing all my reviews, I cannot accidentally write something unnecessarily harsh. I cannot forget to congratulate the authors for their hard work, and wish them luck with their paper (whatever the outcome). Instead, I write thoughtful, helpful, constructive reviews, even when I think the paper is garbage.
This is usually very easy - most papers I review are good quality, and for the rest I don't feel that deciding to reject (albeit politely and helpfully) would bite me in the ass later in my career. Even in the worst-case-scenario (rejecting a paper from a rival lab) the decision to sign has not only been without cost, it has had huge benefits! I've been approached at conferences and workshops, and thanked for my helpful comments. I've been congratulated on the decision to sign reviews. The reviews I've signed have started chats about science that would otherwise never have happened.
I STRONGLY encourage everyone to sign all their reviews, except where doing so would be life-threatening or completely career-ending.
PROBLEM 2: Writing a helpful, constructive review (which you will have to do, if you are signing it!) is hard work for no money.
SOLUTION: I only review for journals I consider 'ethical.' If I am donating my time and expertise, I need to ensure that the recipient is deserving! Journals that are for-profit, remove money from academia and are not open-access (or charge extortionate OA fees) clearly do not deserve charity from me.
When I receive a request to review from an 'unethical' journal, I accept. I then immediately return a blank review, with a confidential note to the editor explaining my decision. For 'ethical' journals, I also include a confidential note, congratulating them on their policies and explaining my decision to review for them.
As well as giving me the warm feeling that I'm contributing my time and brain to a worthy cause, this has the added benefit of screwing up and delaying the review process for 'unethical' journals. Don't feel too sorry for them: these journals charge authors publication fees, and then charge readers to access the papers. And most of the money is removed from academia. Why not use that money to pay for conferences, or grants, or studentships? Perhaps a clunky, delayed review process might encourage these journals to change their policies, or even encourage authors not to submit there anymore.
So in summary: sign all your reviews, and don't do unpaid work for the bad guys. Simple.
And as a reward for reading this far, here is a picture of a baby elephant shortly after crossing a river with its mother. Remember: the same task may be more challenging for some individuals than others. And it is not their fault.