How to write and organize article reviews: a beginner’s guide written by a beginner

Reviewing manuscripts for publication is a unique and rewarding activity. Reviewers get to stay on top of new research and feel good about giving back to the field. It also takes a lot of time and energy.

The following discussion is intended to guide reviewers from start to finish in completing manuscript reviews. Each reviewer develops his or her own style and approach to reviews; you should adapt this information and the template attached at the end of the post to suit your style.

This post represents my experience reviewing manuscripts as well as information and advice I received at a doctoral student workshop at the Public Management Research Conference (PMRC) in June, 2017. Thank you workshop organizers!

Chapters 4 and 6 from the following book informed this post as well: Baruch, Yehuda, Sherry E. Sullivan, and Hazlon N. Schepmyer. 2006. Winning reviews: A guide for evaluating scholarly writing. New York; Basingstoke [England]: Palgrave Macmillan.

For most of us, writing is an iterative process requiring many drafts and rewrites. Instead of scoffing at or haranguing an author, I believe in taking a developmental approach to reviewing manuscripts (Baruch et al. 2006, 69). This means identifying strengths and weaknesses and noting major and minor points and priorities. This approach also means offering specific recommendations about how to improve the manuscript and correct problems. For example, this may include offering your own ideas about variables, theoretical constructs, and other examples to help strengthen the paper (Baruch et al. 2006). 

Try to frame your comments in terms of helping the author head-off reader concerns. This approach tells the author you are on his or her side – you both want the manuscript to be the best it can be.

Below is a list of steps you can follow when conducting a review.

1. Familiarize yourself with the journal’s purpose and author guidelines.

A journal’s purpose and links to author guidelines can usually be found on the journal’s home page. Do this exercise even for journals you think you know well. You may be surprised by something new or nuanced that you didn’t know. In the least, it serves as a refresher for the journal’s purpose and allows you to better assess the extent to which the manuscript is a good fit for the journal. The editor should ultimately make this assessment, but you may be able to contribute to journal-fit too.

2. Print the manuscript and read it through in its entirety.

Read the article all the way through once or twice. Capture initial impressions and concerns in an informal manner. For example, you might be impressed with the writing style and organization or you might be confused about the main purpose of the research. These first impressions may be useful when you start the process of writing your comments and need high-level comments to get the review started. Try to remember that translating complex ideas and processes from the mind of a researcher to an audience is hard. Writers want readers to understand. Try to frame your comments in terms of helping the author head-off reader concerns. This approach tells the author you are on his or her side — you both want the manuscript to be the best it can be.

3. Write a one-paragraph summary of the manuscript.

The process of summarizing the work requires that you synthesize your own understanding of the manuscript.

Once you feel you have a handle on the manuscript as a whole, attempt to write a one-paragraph summary of the manuscript, understanding that you will likely adjust it later. This activity serves a couple of purposes. First, the process of summarizing the work requires that you synthesize your own understanding of the manuscript. Second, your summary helps signal to the author that you have invested the time and effort necessary to understand the topic and the author’s work.

4. Highlight the positive aspects of the manuscript.

After the summary, highlight the positive aspects of the manuscript. Be specific in your comments. For example,

  • “On p. 2 the author does a nice job of framing the article in terms that make it easy to see the fit between this research and the journal by [fill in detail]”
  • “My overall impression of the manuscript is that it is well-written, and flows easily from section to section as demonstrated by the transition between [fill in specifics]”
  • “In the first half of the article, the author logically presents the arguments. I think this organization could be replicated later in the article. I return to this topic below.”
  • “The literature review is comprehensive and focused on the topic demonstrating the author’s deep knowledge in this area.”

I like to organize areas for improvement topically using headers. Download the template at the end of this article to see how I structure a review.

5. Address areas for improvement.

After the positives comments, address areas for improvement. Your recommendations for improvements should be clearly and specifically listed and described. Avoid vague language or unsubstantiated claims.

  • Offer specific suggestions to solve the problems (if you are able)
  • Use page and paragraph numbers to assist author in referencing comments
  • Provide citations you think will help guide the author in making the changes
  • Provide suggestions for how to better use or analyze existing data
  • Propose ways to recognize limitations of the study
  • Offer specific rephrasing of hypotheses and ideas as well as changes to increase readability and clarity

This list is adapted from Winning reviews: A guide for evaluating scholarly writing by Baruch, Sullivan, and Schepmyer, 2006. doi: 10.1177/1350507607085040

6. Manuscript judgement

Manuscript judgement refers to whether or not you recommend the manuscript be published immediately or needs revisions to be considered again for publication. Some journals request review comments without judgements, other journals will ask for comments and a judgement. You have probably heard the phrase “r and r” which refers to the judgement of revise and resubmit.

Only provide a judgement if the journal asks for one. Check to see if the journal editor wants the judgement in the comment to the author or if the manuscript portal specifies a location for the judgement. In my experience, the judgement was not included in the comments to the author but was instead indicated by the reviewer by checking a box in the manuscript review portal. In my experience, the judgement was not included in the comments to the author but was instead indicated by the reviewer by checking a box in the manuscript review portal.

7. Comments to the editor

Some (most?) journals provide a mechanism for providing comments to the editor that are not shared with the author. My two cents on this: try to include all important points in your comments to the author. If you want to say something to the editor that you feel uncomfortable sharing with the author, you may want to check your motivations for doing so. In other words, don’t use the comments to the editor as a forum for disparaging the author or their work. If you are extremely concerned with the manuscript, then your reasons for such concern should be constructively presented to the author. When I fill out this section, I usually say something like “I have no additional feedback for the editor. My complete feedback appears in the manuscript comment document provided to the author.”

Before starting or submitting your review, check the following list to make sure you address important items:

  • Schedule sufficient time to complete a high quality review. Contact the editor to relay your concerns and offer an alternative if you feel you don’t have enough time.
  • If it was not detailed in the review request, ask what the editor expects from you
  • Read the paper several times.
  • Read articles needed to understand the manuscript.
  • Don’t put your name on the review. The review process is supposed to be anonymous. Don’t rely on the editor to remove your name from documents — just don’t put it there to begin with.
  • Write a one-paragraph summary of the article illustrating your understanding of the work.
  • Note and provide detail on the positive and negative aspects of the manuscript.
  • Offer constructive criticism. Avoid remarks that may be seen as ridiculing or chastising the author.
  • Offer specific, actionable suggestions for revision, including complete citations of recommended readings.
  • Ensure your comments are developmental in tone.
  • Recognize any potential serious problems with the manuscript, such as fatal flaws or lack of originality.
  • Proofread your review for typos and other errors.
  • Ask the editor for feedback on your review. (Optional, but recommended for inexperienced reviewers). You can also request to see the other reviewers’ comments.

This list is adapted from Winning reviews: A guide for evaluating scholarly writing by Baruch, Sullivan, and Schepmyer, 2006, pg. 76. doi: 10.1177/1350507607085040

Structuring your manuscript review

To protect the anonymous nature of manuscript reviews, I cannot provide an example of an actual review. Instead, I provide an article review template below.

Download an academic article review sample template:

To keep updated with new posts, make sure to connect with me on LinkedIn.

Using Google Forms for Literature Reviews

In this post, I discuss using Google Forms to organize a literature review with co-authors. Google Forms is designed to be used as survey software, but I have found it works for article reviews as well. Google Forms gathers responses to form fields and sends that data to a Google Sheet. It’s not complicated, but the beauty is that if you are working with multiple collaborators, all the data goes into the same place and in the same format.

Keep you data consistent

One of the challenges of gathering data with other researchers is achieving consistency and version control across users. Google Forms allows you to pre-set the type of answers that are acceptable, whether it be paragraph text, numbers, drop-down menues, or other types of data.

In the screenshot below, I am working in the survey field editor. You can see a form field with pre-set choices for the type of article: theory, practice, or teaching. Each form is editable and you can enable as many people as you wish to have various levels of permission in terms of changing, duplicating, or inviting others to collaborate.


The Data

For articles I’m reading for literature reviews, I use the following form field headers:

  • Citation
  • Research Question
  • Contribution to the Literature
  • Main Argument or Findings
  • Research Design & Data Sources
  • Theoretical Approach
  • Generalizability
  • Implications for Theory or Practice
  • Additional Research Cited
  • My Thoughts

Once you’ve created your form field questions to gather the information you want, just begin filling our the form. In the case of literature reviews, I use one form per citation.

You can preview the entered data either directly in the Google Sheets or use the summary tools Google provides in the Forms application which are formatted for easy viewing of the data in  each form field.

App Integration

If you want to use Google Forms in conjunction with other applications, you can browse Google approved Ad-ons or create your own workflows. One workflow I created was to send each form entry (article review) to my Evernote email address which automatically populates to Evernote notes.  Of course you can also export the data to other formats such as Excel.


Google allows you to customize your forms in both appearance and content. For example, in the screenshot below you can see I selected a gray-green header with a light gray background for my form. The dropdown box provides additional color palette options. You can also change the font size and style.

Now, all that is left is to write #acwri

Using Qualitative Data Analysis Software for Literature Reviews

This post is about my search for a qualitative data analysis (QDA) software solution for writing literature reviews. I review ATLAS.ti 8 and NVivo for Mac.

One of the challenges of writing a dissertation is compiling, organizing, and synthesizing sources. Reference managers such as Mendeley and EndNote are great for inserting bibliographic information into text documents or grouping sources by chosen tags, but they are not great for coding and analyzing connections between documents or keeping track of ideas and thoughts. Note-taking software such as Evernote is great for taking notes from classes or articles, clipping webpages, and organizing thoughts, but again, there is limited functionality for drawing connections between bodies of literature or visualizing connections. Hence the need for a software capable of organizing, coding, and connecting concepts, ideas, and themes.

Both NVivo and ATLAS.ti are designed for executing qualitative (text based) research. To be fair, neither program is specifically designed for writing literature reviews, however, literature reviews are essentially qualitative data analysis. This review is specific to the Mac versions of the two softwares which have slightly different functionality than the Windows versions.

Below are short bulleted lists of the pros and cons of each program. I ended up choosing ATLAS.ti because PDF rendering issues in NVivo were bad enough to be prohibitive of its use. I also have a feeling that knowing how to use ATLAS.ti will serve me in the future when I conduct qualitative research projects outside of literature reviews. However, had the rendering not been a problem, NVivo is easier and more effective for the purpose of conducting lit reviews. One additional suggestion that may make coding texts easier is to get a subscription to Adobe Acrobat Pro (they have special student pricing too) and use the enhance PDF tool to OCR every PDF you plan on importing into ATLAS.ti or any other QDA program. This process help with text recognition when you are selecting and coding text.

NVivo for Mac

Example of a list of coded text from one document in NVIVO
Example of a list of coded text from one document in NVivo. Click image for full-size.


  • Easy to create and code documents
  • Allows document importation from citation managers such as Mendeley
  • Allows memos to be edited and coded just like core document files
  • Has text query capability
  • Provides summary of coded text with marker for source document (see screenshot below)
  • Easy to create code hierarchies wherein multiple codes can be subcategories of a higher level code


  • PDFs do not properly render leading to choppy, slow scrolling action and in some cases, total program freeze—this makes the program very slow to use
  • When viewing documents with coded text visible, there seems to be a bug that causes the view to default back to the original hidden setting instead of your preferred view

Pricing As of January 9, 2017:

  • Student annual subscription $103
  • Student Full subscription $570

ATLAS.ti for Mac

Article coding in Atlas.ti.
Article coding in ATLAS.ti. Click image for full-size.


  • Easy to create and code documents
  • Decent PDF rendering and performance
  • Lots of functionality beyond coding including visualization, quantitative-type analysis of qualitative data, and network analysis capability
  • Sophisticated user interface


  • Cannot import bibliographic files with metadata and accompanying PDFs
  • Cannot code memos
  • Cannot edit documents even if they are in RTF or .docx formats
  • Cannot link memos to documents easily
  • Cannot easily create code hiearchies


  • 2-Year Student license $99


Neither tool is perfect: NVivo has performance issues, but good functionality for the purposes of a lit review. Maybe in the future, once they solve these issues, it will be a clear winner. For now, the bugs cripple the application beyond usability for me.

I’m in the early stages of getting to know ATLAS.ti and will post an update when I have new information to share.