How to review a manuscript

Amy Stamates provides tips for being a great ad-hoc manuscript reviewer.
By Amy L. Stamates, MS

description As a graduate student, you may be asked to review a manuscript either by your advisor or a direct email from a scientific journal. The role of a reviewer is extremely important, as they decide which manuscripts merit publication. Reviewing a manuscript is a great opportunity to learn about the peer-review process, hone your own writing skills and contribute back to psychological science. However, this task may seem daunting, so the following points include some tips on how to navigate your first review.  

  • Understand the Scope of Your Expertise. When you are approached to review a manuscript, you will also be sent the paper’s abstract. Make sure that you read this and determine if the manuscript’s content is an area that you have demonstrated expertise in. If the manuscript includes a study that covers a topic that you do not know much about, you may be uncomfortable provided a critique. In this case, it is acceptable to decline a review request.
  • Strategies for Reading. There are several approaches to reading a manuscript; there is not one best method. As you conduct more reviews, you will learn what works best for you. Some individuals may choose to read through the entire manuscript first to get an overall sense of the project, method, and results, and then go back for a more in-depth review of each manuscript section. Others may want to review the study purpose paragraph and dive into the results. In addition, individuals may just go section-by-section in detail reviewing as they go. Do what works for you. As you read, consider some of these initial questions: What are the authors’ research questions, and are these previously unanswered in the literature? Are the methods used adequate in answering their research question(s)? Are the statistical techniques used appropriate? Do the authors make accurate conclusions? Is the manuscript something that the journal’s readers would be interested in? If you answer these questions as you read, this will help you as you form your overall impression of the manuscript and start to write your more formal written review.
  • Strategies for Documentation. Most reviews will ask you to upload a document or copy/paste your review into their journal’s review portal. You may be tempted to write your review in the website’s boxes that it provides. I would recommend keeping track of your review in case something happens in the portal, so you don’t have to potentially re-write everything. Create a Word document, label the manuscript’s ID, journal name, provide a summary of the manuscript, list major issues, and list minor issues. These latter points will be described in more detail below.
  • Summary. Most reviews start with an overall summary of the manuscript in your (i.e., the reviewer) words. This summary will help you lay out the main gist of the manuscript and the major findings. You may wish to provide your overall impressions of the manuscript here as well. Perhaps this is a particularly exciting topic and the methods used to analyze the research question are innovative. Let the manuscript’s authors know positive things about their manuscript too!
  • Major Points/Minor Points. You may divide your review by major (e.g., concerns with literature review, issues with methods used) and minor (e.g., typos, grammar issues) points, or by sections (e.g., Intro, Method, Results, Discussion, Abstract, Figures, Tables). Either way is fine, but number your points. This makes your review clearer and will help the authors as they address your specific comments, especially if you have a lot of comments. In addition, you may want to note the page and line of specific concerns that you address in your review. Regarding content of these major and minor points, you may discuss anything about the manuscript that may be incorrect, unclear or unjustified. Perhaps the manuscript’s authors did not adequately describe the literature in their Introduction, or their research question/hypotheses are vague. In their Method, there may be concerns with their recruitment strategy, the population used, or measurement of constructs. These are issues that you want to comment on. Also, make sure that you are constructive in your feedback. You want to comment on weaknesses andstrengths of the manuscript.
  • Fatal Flaws. During your career, you will read manuscripts that include details that cannot be overlooked, and you will reject those papers. Northridge & Susser (2011) published seven fatal flaws of manuscripts which include: (1) manuscript topic is not of relevance; (2) paper is not innovative; (3) subject is not generalizable; (4) study has low response rate/attrition issues; (5) the data/design may not be in line with the journal’s preferences; (6) flawed design; and (7) the paper is a literature review. Each of these issues may limit the manuscript authors’ conclusions and temper the reviewer’s enthusiasm for the paper.
  • Know Your Rating Choices. As you develop your impression of the manuscript, understand your possible decision choices as outlined by each journal. Most journals will allow you to accept the manuscript for publication, reject, revise with a major revision, or revise with a minor revision. When you submit your choice and your review, you will also have the option to provide specific comments to the Editor. These comments will not be reviewed by the manuscript’s authors, so you can provide honest positive or negative feedback.