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How to Review an Article Manuscript

Professor Charles King, School of Foreign Service and Department of Government, Georgetown University

The double-blind peer review process is one of the great achievements of the academic world. Here is how it works: An author sends a manuscript to a journal editor. The editor then sends it out to one or more reviewers (also called "referees"), who then provide written comments to the editor about whether the manuscript should be published or not. The editor finally communicates the results of the review process back to the author and usually also provides copies of the reviewers' comments. 

The process is "double-blind" in the sense that the reviewers do not know who the author of the manuscript is, and the author does not know who the reviewers are. The reviewers are "peers" in the sense that--if the editor is doing his job--they will be people who have genuine expertise in the same field as the author. 

There are, of course, lots of variants of this process. An editor can send out all the manuscripts he receives (even the ones that are clearly loopy) or send out only some. The editor can choose mainly members of a pre-selected "editorial board" as reviewers or seek wide representation from the entire discipline. The editor can choose one reviewer or several. 

Regardless of the exact format, the review process is about as close as academia comes to the sacred. Serving as a reviewer can be a chore, especially when you have your own work to do, but being a good referee is one of the things in which scholars should take pride.

Here are some general guidelines on how to be a responsible reviewer:

1. Be kind. If you have an urge to be cutting, put yourself in the author’s shoes. But don’t be condescending. If you recommend that the piece be rejected, there is no need to be “encouraging” to the author. Just explain clearly but respectfully why it should be rejected, and that is enough.

2. Do not put your name or affiliation anywhere on the review itself (although a cover letter or email should give this information).

3. Use gender-neutral language. Since you don’t know who the author is, you may have to use the respectful but inelegant "he/she".

4. Begin with a paragraph that tells the editor what the overall argument and methods of the paper are, and where you think its main contribution (or claim to contribution) lies.

5. At the end of the first paragraph, tell the editor whether the manuscript should be published or not. Journals have a range of "bottom lines" that they use, but generally the final assessment comes in one of three forms:

a. Publish as-is or with only very minor revisions (e.g., spelling errors, an error in a date or name, etc.). This is the rarest conclusion; very few manuscripts come in ready to go to the printer.

b. Publish in revised form (e.g., cut down a section, switch around pieces of the argument, add a section). The revisions can be more or less substantial, and the editor may want to send out the revised manuscript for another round of review once the revised manuscript comes in. 

c. Do not publish even if substantially revised. The research is so seriously flawed--in conception, design, sources used, etc.--or the writing so poor that there is no hope for the manuscript.

6. The rest of the review consists of your comments to the author. (This is where you justify the decision you made about the manuscript at the end of the first paragraph.) You may want to divide them into “general” and “specific” sections. General comments have to do with the overall argument, its logic, the author’s approach and methods, the literature to which the manuscript aims to contribute, and so on. Specific comments have to do with the writing style, errors of fact, and any minor problems that need to be corrected in subsequent drafts. In this section, you might also want to give specific page references to help the author locate the problem areas.

7. You do not need to comment on minor spelling errors, things that are clearly typographical mistakes, or other small problems that would be corrected by a copyeditor. However, if the author’s writing style is bad—that is, if there are clear problems of grammar that are more than one-off mistakes—say so.

8. How long should the review be? There is a huge range, from a few sentences to a few pages. And length is not always an indication of quality. I have received incisive and succint reviews that were a single paragraph and three-page ramblings that read like a bad James Joyce pastiche. The main aims of your review should be to offer constructive, collegial criticism to the author and to help the editor in the task of publishing high-quality research. As with any piece of writing, write exactly as much as you need to write to get your points across--and no more. 

© Copyright 2003, Charles King
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