How to write a review

Reviewing is one of the tasks related to the ‘service’ side for those of us in academic positions. The task of reviewing typically entails reading a manuscript sent by an editor from a journal, providing written comments to the author (and editors should that be necessary), and submitting a recommendation to the editor/s. For manuscripts submitted to journals, the reviewer typically provides a recommendation for publication to the editor/s — ranging from “accept” through “revise and resubmit” to “reject.” Reviewing takes in the work of writing recommendations related to research proposals for funding, providing comments to publishing houses on book prospectuses and manuscripts, and submitting recommendations for whether abstracts and proposals for conference presentations should be accepted.

Reviewing is an important task in academic work, since it allows scholars to provide critique and recommendations on others’ research studies, findings, and proposals for future research. What does critique consist of? Typically scholars are called upon to critique one another’s work in ways that:

  • Contribute to the quality of the work (e.g., through recommendations to authors to consider ideas from other streams of literature, or strengthen arguments via inclusion of further evidence etc.)
  • Pose questions of authors to prompt consideration of counter-arguments (e.g., providing alternative interpretations of data presented)
  • Prompt consideration concerning how the research design and methods used are consistent with the research questions posed and the evidence presented.

High ethical standards are crucial if the peer-review system is to work well. That means that reviewers should never share unpublished manuscripts with other readers, or use ideas from manuscripts without permission from the author. If there are conflicts of interest, reviewers should report these to the editor/s, so that the manuscript can be re-assigned to another reviewer. When might a conflict of interest occur? Potential conflicts occur when an author recognizes the author of a “blind” manuscript. In some instances, this might lead to a scenario when a reviewer does not fairly review the ideas of another scholar. Since some journals seek recommendations for reviewers from authors when manuscripts are submitted, there have also been cases in which authors have submitted phony details for reviewers – and reviewed their own manuscript (positively!). This is research misconduct, and in instances where this has been found to have occurred, manuscripts have been withdrawn.

While many journals operate on a system of “double-blind peer review” – in which scholars submit a manuscript that is anonymized, and reviewers anonymously provide commentary and recommendations, some journals allow reviewers to see the authors of the manuscript (while reviewers remain anonymous). With open access publishing – in which journals provide open access via the world wide web to any reader, some academic portals and bibliographic tools such as ResearchGate and Mendeley allow scholars to post manuscripts that are in process to allow for feedback from others – who would not be anonymous. Clearly, the norms for peer review are rapidly changing with new tools and technologies. For those new to the process of peer reviewing, here are a few ideas for getting started.

Receiving an invitation to review

When a scholar receives the initial invitation to review a manuscript the title and abstract are provided. Be sure to read the abstract. Does it match your areas of knowledge and expertise? If not, then perhaps the invitation to review should be declined, so the review can be completed by someone knowledgeable in the area. Do be polite and respond to the invitation. If you know that you cannot complete a review in a timely way – let the editor know so they can locate another reviewer. Editors also appreciate suggestions for other reviewers should a scholar invited to complete a review decline.

A first reading

Take time to do a careful first reading of a manuscript, all the while considering the kinds of manuscripts called for in the description of the scope of the journal. This information is found on the journal’s web-site. I typically take rough notes throughout a manuscript that I review. These may be comments about ideas and questions I have about the topics presented. Questions to consider include:

  • Is the literature review thorough, informative and well organized?
  • Have authors defined the terms and concepts used?
  • Are theoretical perspectives explained?
  • Are the research design and methods sufficiently detailed?
  • Is the author’s argument logical and are findings well supported?
  • Is the manuscript accurately formatted to the journal’s specifications?
  • Does the argument contribute to the scholarly literature in an area?
  • Is the manuscript a good “fit” for the journal?

Since approaches to qualitative methods are many and varied, the questions listed above are not exhaustive – and will likely differ depending on the journal and approach taken in a particular manuscript. I typically leave the manuscript for a day or two to allow time to think further about the ideas presented. This allows time to come back and add to initial thoughts.

Writing a review

I then reconsider the manuscript, re-reading sections I have marked. There is no one way to write a review. I usually start by providing an opening paragraph that collects the main ideas I hope to convey (e.g., overall impressions, strengths and weaknesses and so on), before providing more detailed comments and suggestions that extrapolate on the main points outlined in the opening. Be sure to comment on the writing, rather than the author. For example, it is not appropriate to be uncivil or critique the author. For example, Robert J. Sternberg, a psychologist and psychometrician, while president of the American Psychological Association wrote an editorial in 2003 in which he implored reviewers “to be civil”. He provided an example from the review of an article he had submitted in which the referee suggested that he find another line of work consistent with his limited level of mental abilities (!). These types of comments are never appropriate. In providing suggestions to other authors, care needs to be taken to formulate ideas in respectful ways. Further, in some ways, reviewing is pedagogical work — in that reviewers are in a position in which they can educate others about particular approaches to research or substantive areas, and help scholars to improve their writing and research.

Making a recommendation

For me, this is always the most challenging part of writing a review. Here, the reviewer must make a decision on recommending the article for publication to the editor. This should be directly related to the evidence provided in the review. These recommendations are advisory and editors may decide not to follow this recommendation, based on other reviews received.

Finally, it helps the review process, and editors if reviewing assignments are completed by the due date.


Why review?

Since reviewing is a task that will not lead to another publication or contribute to an ongoing research study, and also takes a considerable amount of time when taken seriously, why do it?

Giving back. Reviewing is a way for scholars to give back to the field in which they situate their own work. In my own work, I’ve benefited from the generous reviews of other scholars who took the time to read my work and offer suggestions for improvement. I’ve found suggestions from reviewers concerning other literature to read has contributed enormously to my own work.  By taking time to review others’ work, I’m able in a small way to ‘pay it forward’ to other scholars. And it’s always exciting to see when these articles are published.

Learning about substantive topics. Reading about others’ research provides insight into what others are scholars are doing, as well as new ideas and innovations in the field. This can be helpful in one’s research and teaching. As scholars gain expertise in a particular area, they will likely be asked more frequently to review articles concerning particular topics (and of course, may have to decline some of those invitations in the interests of time!).

Locating other resources

Many publishing houses provide guidelines to authors on how to review. For example, see



Although directed to editors, The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) provides numerous resources. COPE’s Ethical Guidelines for Peer review are found here.

And of course, articles have been published on the peer review process. Here are two:

Rojewski, J. W., & Domenico, D. M. (2004). The art and politics of peer review. Journal of Career and Technical Education, 20(2), 41-54.

Lovejoy, T. I., Revenson, T. A., & France, C. R. (2011). Reviewing Manuscripts for Peer-Review Journals: A Primer for Novice and Seasoned Reviewers. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 42(1), 1-13. doi: 10.1007/s12160-011-9269-x

I hope you too are able to take the time to enjoy the work of reviewing.

Kathy Roulston 


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