Writing a review – day 1: review structure and useful phrases

Writing a review – day 1: review structure and useful phrases

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Introduction

Writing a review of other people’s research is a great way to get started with writing about Science in English. It will get you to read and evaluate scientific work and help you to understand when something is well written or poorly written and make you more familiar with phrases and vocabulary. It can also be the beginning of your involvement with English language journals and help you to understand what work will be accepted for publication and why.

Let’s take a look at a review and consider the structure and some useful phrases.

Reviewer #2:

Thank you for sharing this interesting paper on a major P4P programme in Brazil. The work is very well written and expertly carried out. The writing is clear and understandable, and the methods are appropriate. The inclusion of multiple sensitivity analyses is welcome and these demonstrate the robustness of the work. I have no major comments or changes suggested.

A few very minor comments:

Clarify early on (in abstract) that this study is about evaluating rewarding health professionals, as the term “family health teams” could imply service providers or their budgets.

I think it would be useful to mention the size of the overall PMAQ as proportion of public spending – I believe it was relatively small.

Would it be worth mentioning in the limitations that municipalities that give incentives to teams could be different in characteristics that were not measured (political factors, working arrangements, local contracting, existing salaries and other bonuses) and could have had some minor bias;

I would emphasize more the uncertainty about clinical relevance of the PMAQ surveys and scores;

Could the authors also comment on the size of the bonus – 21% or 50%+ of salary – where most of the impact was found. I think this is a relatively large amount, and do they recommend this approach be used in other settings for relatively modest quality gains?

The above review is relatively short, but it does cover the major items required of a review, apart from giving a final judgement on whether the article should be accepted, rejected or revised. It is implied that the paper should be accepted, but it is always helpful to be specific.

The review included here comes from a PLoS Medicine article: https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article/peerReview?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1004033

The above review is relatively short, but it does cover the major items required of a review, apart from giving a final judgement on whether the article should be accepted, rejected or revised. It is implied that the paper should be accepted, but it is always helpful to be specific.

There are many ‘open reviews’ published on PLoS One and are a great resource from which you can learn and study review writing.

Structuring a review

When you write your review, having a clear structure in mind will make it easier to write in English. Your review should contain 3 parts:

An introduction summarising what you thought of the paper – giving the major benefits and weaknesses. (we will cover language for this below and in the next 4 digests.)

  • Itemise the specific changes or things you would like the authors to consider. (We will also cover language for this.)
  • Conclude your thoughts in a final sentence indicating whether the paper should be accepted, rejected or revised. (We will also cover language for this.)

When writing your review you should have the following questions in mind and answer these in the three sections above:

  • How well written is the paper – is it easy enough to understand?
  • Is this research appropriate for the journal?
  • Does this research have lasting value and is it important to the field?
  • Is this information new, does it add anything not already known?
  • Is the paper focused on the intended topic?
  • Is the methodology clearly described and appropriate?
  • Are the tables and figures and statistical analysis correct and relevant?
  • Are the results clearly stated and how significant are they?
  • Have all appropriate references been made; have the authors included relevant statements around conflict of interest; is the paper free from bias.

If you follow the above structure it will allow you to focus on writing the review in good and clear English. Some journals will have their own structure that they would like you to follow.

Some useful phrases

We have highlighted in bold italic useful phrases in the above review that will help you to write the review and answer the questions above.

‘The work is well written’ and ‘the writing is clear and understandable’: highlight good English in the paper.

Alternatives: ‘The English is good’; ‘the writing is concise’; ‘the article is written in clear English’; ‘the article is easy to understand’.

Opposites: ‘The work is not well written’; ‘the article is difficult to understand’; ‘the writing/the English is poor’.

the methods are appropriate’: highlighting the correct methodology for the paper.

Alternatives: ‘the correct methods were used’; ‘the methods are sound’; ‘the methodology is sound’; ‘the authors used the right methodology’

Opposites: ‘the authors used the wrong methodology’; ‘the methods were not appropriate for the study’; ‘the disadvantage of this approach is’.

clarify early on’: it is helpful to identify where authors can be clearer in their writing, avoiding ambiguity.

Alternatives: ‘the author confuses; ‘this is misleading’; ‘readers may be confused’; ‘it is not clear that’

Opposites: ‘this work is clearly focused on’; ‘this research is focused’.

‘I think it would be useful to’: this phrase could be used either to highlight that an author has missed something important or to suggest a change of approach.

Alternative: ‘the authors could instead focus on’.

‘Would it be worth mentioning’: this phrase politely highlights that the authors could add a point of interest.

Alternatives: ‘could you consider’; ‘the authors should add’; ‘[something] is missing from this analysis’.

‘I would emphasize’: shows that a point needs more attention.

‘Could the authors also comment on’: this phrase highlights that there is more discussion to be had.

Alternatives: ‘could you explain’; ‘the authors should explain’.

‘do they recommend’: this phrase is asking for more information, but is a more specific question about what the authors think should happen based on their knowledge of the topic.

Alternatives: ‘what is your conclusion?’; ‘[given the results], what would you suggest?’

Further study for this week

if you have time for further study this week try to write a review for a piece of research you are familiar with. Use the advice above and the advice in the following Journal entries for this week.

Or try the short quiz below to test your knowledge.

Lesson tags: English for scientists, Review structure, Useful phrases for reviews
Back to: English for Scientists 2022