How to Write a Good Scientific Paper: a Reviewer’s Checklist

J. Micro/Nanolith. MEMS MOEMS. 14(2), 020101 (May 15, 2015). doi:10.1117/1.JMM.14.2.020101
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Peer review is a critical part of the publishing process at JM3, as it is for most science journals. We require a minimum of two independent reviews before we will accept a manuscript, though it remains the editor’s decision on whether a manuscript is ultimately accepted or rejected. There are many kinds of peer review, so to be specific JM3 practices an editor-driven external peer review of author-submitted manuscripts. Reviewers (also called referees) are blinded, meaning that authors never know the identity of the reviewers. I’ll write more about the overall editorial process at JM3 in my next editorial, but here I’d like to focus specifically on the reviewing of a manuscript.

The peer-review process serves two immediate goals: to help editors decide which manuscripts to publish and which to reject (filtering), and to give authors advice on how to improve their papers (criticism). Additionally, the “stamp of approval” of being published in a peer-reviewed journal can aid authors in their careers, as well as having many other benefits. But it is my philosophy that everything about the science publishing enterprise should be focused on the reader, and so it is with the peer-review process. The filtering and criticism that accompanies an editorial peer-review process helps to get the best papers into the hands of the most interested readers efficiently.

But for the peer-review process to fulfill its goals, the reviews must be of good quality. What constitutes a quality review? Alas, I suspect that none of us has ever been trained in proper science-paper reviewing—we generally figure it out through experience. Anyone who has published a fair number of papers knows that some reviews are of much higher quality than others (independent of the ultimate fate of any given manuscript). A good review teaches the author about writing and about science, resulting not only in one better paper, but in making every subsequent paper the author writes better. It also makes the job of the editor significantly easier. A bad quality review does none of this.

Over the last three years I’ve written a series of editorials on what it takes to write a good scientific paper.1 These topics constitute a reasonable list of things a reviewer should be looking for in any paper that might hope to be published. Appended to this editorial is a summary of the advice I gave in those editorials, organized in the form of a checklist.

To be clear, neither editors nor reviewers need to use a formal checklist when writing a review. The attached list is a guideline to help both editors and reviewers make sure that the most important aspects of a scientific paper are considered. As one might expect, the checklist also happens to be a great list of things an author should consider before submitting a manuscript. It is always good advice for an author to think like a reader, and the first readers will be the editors and reviewers.

After reading and critically evaluating a manuscript, the reviewer must now convey that evaluation to the journal editors. In all cases, a respectful and constructive tone should be used. The format of a review is not critical, but each review should contain certain vital information. The first paragraph should contain these three key points:

  • Provide a brief (1-2 sentence) synopsis of the paper
  • Explain what is novel in this paper (1-2 sentences), both what the authors claim and your assessment
  • Explain why the work is significant, or not (1-2 sentences)

If the reviewer finds it difficult to put any or all of these points into one or two sentences, chances are the manuscript has not done a good job conveying its key messages—a potential red flag.

The second paragraph should give an overview of the quality of the research being reported. If there are any significant flaws in the logical progression from method to data to analysis to conclusions, bring them up here and what could be done to fix the flaws. In this paragraph, focus on the big issues (if there are any). If all is good, say so.

The third and final section of the review should be a list of specific points that the author should address. These points can be small or large, from graphics formatting to paper organization. Remember, though, that copyediting will be done by the journal staff after acceptance, so don’t worry about language or format issues unless they interfere with your ability to properly understand and review the manuscript, or if improper language causes what is said to deviate from what is meant.

What does a bad quality review look like? A list of generic complaints or conclusions without specific references to the details of the manuscript is not very helpful (for example, saying that the work is not novel but not providing any example prior publications that cover the same topic). The worst kind of review is one that simply states the reviewer’s accept/reject conclusion. This is essentially of no value to an editor.

Reviewers are absolutely essential to the success of a peer-reviewed science journal. Reviewers volunteer their valuable time (typically 3–8 hours per manuscript) for no obvious benefit, other than the altruistic goal of giving back to their community. For all those who have contributed reviews to JM3, I thank you. Perhaps this editorial, with the attached checklist, will make your job a little easier next time.


Mack  C. A., “Editorial: How to Write a Good Scientific Paper”, J. Micro/Nanolith. MEMS MOEMS. 11, (2 ), 11, (3 ), 11, (4 ), 12, (1 ), 12, (2 ), 12, (4 ), 13, (1 ), 13, (2 ), 13, (4 ) (2012–2014). 1932-5134 
© 2015 Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers


Chris Mack
"How to Write a Good Scientific Paper: a Reviewer’s Checklist", J. Micro/Nanolith. MEMS MOEMS. 14(2), 020101 (May 15, 2015). ; http://dx.doi.org/10.1117/1.JMM.14.2.020101




Mack  C. A., “Editorial: How to Write a Good Scientific Paper”, J. Micro/Nanolith. MEMS MOEMS. 11, (2 ), 11, (3 ), 11, (4 ), 12, (1 ), 12, (2 ), 12, (4 ), 13, (1 ), 13, (2 ), 13, (4 ) (2012–2014). 1932-5134 

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