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

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:

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