Applying for NSF Funding – PI perspective

I recently collaborated with a multidisciplinary team of colleagues to write an NSF proposal. The process had all the best characteristics of science: learning each others’ language, building a common understanding of our project goals, building trust and respect for very different forms of expertise. I am so excited to work with this project team and am grateful at their patience in teaching me about their scholarship.

During the proposal development, I realized that guides to NSF proposals are mostly written from the perspective of institutional administrations. These are great, but still leave some steps in the process murky from the perspective of project PIs and co-PIs. I sat down one night and wrote a guide to the NSF proposal process from my perspective as a PI. I hope it is helpful.

First and Foremost: Read the NSF Guide to Proposals!!!! Make sure you access the most current version of the guide since NSF adds updates.

National Science Foundation Proposal Process from the PI/co-PI Perspective
Prepared by Julie Libarkin
Accurate as of January 2019
This document provides guidance for submission of proposals to National Science Foundation (NSF) from the perspective of PIs and Co-PIs.


  1. Identify the grants person in your unit or college. Let them know you are submitting a proposal, provide the link to the RFP, and state the proposal deadline.
    1. Most universities have internal deadlines for routing of budgets and completion of proposal documents. Find out these deadlines.
  2. Every PI/co-PI must have an NSF login. If you do not have one, your institution must generate one for you. This verifies that you have the “right” to submit as an institutional PI. Remember, NSF grants go to institutions not individuals.
    1. Many institutions limit who can serve as a PI. Check with your institution. If you are told you are not eligible, ask if there is an exemption process. For example, many institutions will exempt postdocs and allow them to serve as co-PIs.
  3. A number of certifications are required by NSF (or the federal government) upon proposal submission. Most institutions will know how to handle these certifications and thus PIs/co-PIs generally do not need to worry about these. For institutions with less experience in submitting proposals, PIs/co-PIs may need to do some of the work themselves. If you are unsure about your institution’s capabilities, ask about certifications early.


  1. Read the NSF proposal guide at least once per year. NSF changes their process and rules over time, and typically at least once a year. This guide provides technical guidelines (e.g., page margins), required components of the
    1. Note that every suggestion made in this document is based on the NSF grant proposal guide! Read the guide!!!!!
  2. Read the RFP. Then read it again. Read it a third time when you think your proposal is done. Ask your proposal co-authors to read it as well.
    1. Look for components of the project description that are different from the components listed in the grant proposal guide. Miss one, and you aren’t likely to get funded.
    2. Read the program page for general details about the program and contact information for Program Officers.
    3. Look up abstracts of recently funded projects. These may be linked from the program page or the RFP. You can also search for abstracts here:
  3. Other Required Documents. NSF requires a suite of documents be completed in addition to the project description. It is very important that these be completed correctly – not following the rules is an easy way to get disqualified.
    1. Cover Sheet. The cover sheet contains information about the PI/co-PIs and the program to which the proposal is being submitted. Most of this is self-explanatory, although working with a grants person is helpful.
      • Note that the “Human Subjects” or “Animal Subjects” box must be checked for those forms of research (even if research is exempt). If approval has not yet been granted by your institutional IRB, type “pending” into the date box.
        1. If you are lucky enough to get funded, NSF will not release any funds until IRB approval is obtained! For full review processes, you may need to submit for IRB approval in the time between submission and learning if you have been funded.
      • Each PI/co-PI must submit a biosketch. This document details your background and must be in a very specific format. I encourage obtaining a copy of a biosketch from a colleague who has already submitted to NSF and modifying it for your needs.
      • Budget and Budget Justification. NSF has very specific categories of allowed costs. Most institutions have templates for these documents and people to help you. Read the grant proposal guide and ask questions!
        1. Do not exceed the total budgetary limit. You also don’t have to ask for the full amount up to the limit. I encourage asking for the funds you need to do the work.
        2. Collaborative proposals are limited to the budget limit. This means that the TOTAL amount on all collaborating proposals must be under that limit!
        3. Make sure you connect with your institution’s central budget office for their approval of your budget and justification!
  4. Current and Pending Support. Each PI/co-PI must document all current support and pending proposals. Most institutions have a template that can be used. If not, obtain one from a colleague who has submitted to NSF. Include funding or pending proposals from any source, not just NSF!
  5. Make sure your total time assigned across all of your funded proposals does not exceed 12 annual months / 9 academic months / 3 summer months. You likely should have less than this time assigned unless you are 100% research in your position.
  6. Facilities, Equipment and Other Resources. This provides documentation that the resources necessary for completing the proposed work are available at the institution of each PI/co-PI. Make sure to keep it narrative and simple; do not to include any monetary information as this may violate the cost sharing rules. I encourage obtaining a copy of a facilities document from a colleague at your institution who has already submitted to NSF and modifying it for your needs.
  7. Data Management Plan. This document details how data will be stored and shared and preserved into the future. Obtain a copy from a colleague or your institution.
  8. Collaborators & Other Affiliations (COA). This document provides specific information to NSF about PI/co-PI affiliations. NSF provides a specific template that must be used:
  9. Other Documents that may or may not be required:
    • Postdoctoral Researcher Mentoring Plan. This is required only if a postdoctoral scholar is included in the budget. Obtain a copy from a colleague or your institution.
      1. Only one copy of the postdoc mentoring plan is submitted. This means that all institutions should combine their plans into a single document.
    • Letters of Collaboration. If consultants or other individuals are included in the project, you need to obtain letters of collaboration. These are very simple documents. As of January 2019, NSF suggests this format for the letter – do not include any additional information or your proposal may be disqualified:  “If the proposal submitted by Dr. [insert the full name of the Principal Investigator] entitled [insert the proposal title] is selected for funding by NSF, it is my intent to collaborate and/or commit resources as detailed in the Project Description or the Facilities, Equipment and Other Resources section of the proposal.”
    • Check the grant proposal guide for other documents for special programs and for warnings about submission of non-allowed materials!
  10. Project Description. This is the proposal itself.
    1. Most proposals are limited to 15 pages. Read the grant proposal guide linked above for information about special types of proposals that have different page limits and review processes.
    2. Read the grant proposal guide to learn about EAGERs, RAPIDs, and other opportunities.
    3. NSF requires a few sections be included in each proposal. Unless stated in the RFP, proposers have flexibility in their proposal format beyond the required sections described below.
    4. NSF has two merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Proposals must contain separate sections for each of these criteria. The sections must be labeled Intellectual Merit; Broader Impacts.
    5. Read the RFP you are submitting to. Often, RFPs will contain specific details about other required sections of the proposal!
      • Find out if your institution will do a check of your proposal against the requirements. If not, find a colleague who will help you – often it is hard to see the details yourself after so much writing!
    6. Proposals must also contain a section detailing the Results of Prior NSF Funding.
      1. The prior work section is limited to five pages. Generally, the section should be shorter, however, since the description of the proposed work is the most important component of the proposal.
      2. Each PI/co-PI must be listed.
        1. If NSF funding has been obtained in the past 5 years, at least ONE NSF project must be described.
        2. The format of the funding description must look like this: Co-PI on two projects investigating entrepreneurship education and the lack of gender diversity among engineering students engaged in entrepreneurship training (DGE-1535011, Examining the Effect of Entrepreneurial Education Pedagogy on the Development of Women in STEM, $463,822, 8/15-8/18; IUSE-1504257, Investigating Entrepreneurship Education as a Means to Developing the 21st Century Engineer, $249,944, 6//15-5/18). Intellectual Merit: These projects will identify methods for assessment and causes of gender disparities in higher education entrepreneurship training. Broader Impacts: Findings will provide the foundation for studies examining the engagement of students of different backgrounds and gender, and help inform curriculum to engage a diverse community. Publications/Products: Hirshfield, et al., 2017; Huang-Saad et al., 2016; Huang-Saad, et al., n.d.; Morton et al., 2016; Shekhar et al., 2017.
          1. Note that Publications/Products can be Products, Publications, or both.
        3. All references included in prior work must be included in the References Cited document.
        4. State “No prior NSF funding” if no NSF funding has been received by a PI/co-PI.
        5. While NSF only requires description of ONE prior NSF grant, this does not preclude inclusion of more than one NSF grant or other grants. Generally, it is a good idea to include non-NSF funding for PIs/co-PIs with a record of grants, especially when these grants fit well under the proposed work.
          1. You have flexibility about how to describe this work since it is not NSF. That said, I encourage including at least the title, dollar amounts, and dates. Including the Intellectual Merit, Broader Impacts, and Publications/Products may be helpful if space allows:

Funding related to [proposal topic] The project team also has funding specifically related to sexual misconduct.

Jones has received funding from international government and charitable organizations for her research on [TOPICS]. Selected funding includes:

  • PI on a grant from GROUP (Title; dollars; dates)
  • Co-PI on a grant from GROUP (Title; dollars; dates)

11. Project Summary. This is a brief summary of the proposal. Three sections are required and only these three can be entered: overview, the intellectual merit of the proposed activity, and the broader impacts of the proposed activity.

  • NSF has a character limit for the project summary. The Fastlane system calculates a character count that is slightly different from WORD. A safe approach is to write one single-spaced page with 1-inch margins and 12-point times New Roman font. This will be close to the limit.


  1. Fastlane and have a common login. I prefer to use Fastlane since I am very familiar with it. Fastlane also has a long history of operation and therefore is less likely to glitch. is also only available for proposal submission for limited RFPs at this time.
  2. Proposals with multiple participating institutions can be submitted as a single proposal with subawards or as collaborative proposals. Determine if you are submitting as a sub or collaboratively.
    1. At many institutions, a single proposal with subawards results in overhead being charged on the first $25,000 of EACH sub. Only one annual report is due each year.
      1. If a single proposal is utilized, only the submitting institution officially submits to NSF. All documents from collaborators are uploaded by the single institution, including budgets.
      2. The submitting institution must submit the following documents for the PI and all co-PIs. Items in italics are submitted only by the lead institution on collaborative proposals, below.
        1. Cover Sheet
        2. Project Summary
        3. Table of Contents (Fastlane generates this automatically)
        4. Project Description
        5. References Cited
        6. Biographical Sketches
        7. Budget and Budget Justification
        8. Current and Pending Support
        9. Facilities, Equipment, and Other Resources
        10. Data Management Plan
        11. Postdoctoral Mentoring Plan (if postdocs are included)
        12. Collaborators & Other Affiliations
  • The submitting institution will require a subaward agreement with subawardees. This usually looks like a scope of work describing in general what subawardees will do, a budget and budget justification, and a letter of agreement. You should connect the grants people between institutions to get this completed as per your institution’s guidelines.
  1. A collaborative proposal means funds are provided as separate grants to each institution and thus no extra overhead. Each institution must submit an annual report each year.
    1. If a collaborative proposal is utilized, choose one lead institution. Most documents will be submitted by that lead, but collaborators must create a proposal and submit their own documents.
      1. See above for list of documents submitted by the lead institution.
    2. The lead institution is linked to the collaborating institutions through proposal pins. The collaborating institutions create a pin for their proposal and provide the proposal ID and pin to the lead institution.
    3. The collaborating institution must submit ONLY the following documents through their proposal. The lead institution will submit all other documents.
      1. Cover Sheet
      2. Table of Contents (Fastlane generates this automatically)
      3. Biographical Sketches
      4. Budget and Budget Justification
      5. Current and Pending Support
      6. Facilities, Equipment, and Other Resources
      7. Collaborators & Other Affiliations

The Geoscience Concept Inventory

Many people ask me for access to questions that have been developed over time as part of the bank of items that evaluate geoscience understanding. Here are item sets, including links to papers, that have been evaluated using item response theory approaches. This space will be updated as new items sets become available:

  1. Geoscience Concept Inventory Item Bank
  2. Climate Change Concept Inventory Item Set
  3. Earth Systems Science Item Bank

Geoscience Concept Inventory Item Bank
A valid and reliable bank of items designed for diagnosis of alternative conceptions and assessment of learning in entry-level earth science courses. Rasch analysis was used to generate a bank of items aligned with ability.

The online testing system for the GCI is no longer active. A word document containing original GCI items is available here: GCI_v3.April2011_origGCI. Instructors and researchers are encouraged to use these items freely and without restriction. Item numbers correlate to numbers in paper reporting on GCI Rasch analysis: Libarkin, J.C., Anderson, S.W., 2006, The Geoscience Concept Inventory: Application of Rasch Analysis to Concept Inventory Development in Higher Education: in Applications of Rasch Measurement in Science Education, ed. X. Liu and W. Boone: JAM Publishers, p. 45-73: LibarkinandAnderson2006

DESCRIPTION: The Geoscience Concept Inventory (GCI) is a multiple-choice assessment instrument for use in the Earth sciences classroom. The GCI v.1.0 consisted of 69 validated questions that could be selected by an instructor to create a customized 15-question GCI subtest for use in their course. These test items cover topics related to general physical geology concepts, as well as underlying fundamental ideas in physics and chemistry, such as gravity and radioactivity, that are integral to understanding the conceptual Earth. Each question has gone through rigorous reliability and validation studies. Over TWENTY colleagues have contributed new questions to the item bank, bringing the number of available, high quality questions to almost 200.

We built the the GCI using the most rigorous methodologies available, including scale development theory, grounded theory, and item response theory (IRT). To ensure inventory validity we incorporated a mixed methods approach using advanced psychometric techniques not commonly used in developing content-specific assessment instruments. We conducted ~75 interviews with college students, collected nearly 1000 open-ended questionnaires, grounded test content in these qualitative data, and piloted test items at over 40 institutions nationwide, with ~5000 student participants.

In brief, the development of the GCI involved interviewing students, collecting open-ended questionnaires, generating test items based upon student responses, soliciting external review of items by both scientists and educators, pilot testing of items, analysis of items via standard factor analysis and item response theory, “Think Aloud” interviews with students during test piloting, revision, re-piloting, and re-analysis of items iteratively. Although time consuming, the resulting statistical rigor of the items on an IRT scale suggest that the methods we have used constitute highly valid practice for assessment test development.

Climate Change Concept Inventory Item Set

A valid and reliable assessment instrument designed for diagnosis of alternative conceptions and assessment of learning around climate change conceptions. Rasch analysis was used to validate the alignment of the item set with ability.

Two publications document the utility of this measure with respect to the general public and college students. Both studies considered the impact of conceptual understanding, affect and world views on risk perception.

a) College students: Aksit, O., McNeal, K., Gold, A., Libarkin, J., Harris, S., 2018, The influence of instruction, prior knowledge, and values on climate change risk perception among undergraduates: Journal of Research in Science Teaching, v. 55, p. 550–572.

b) General public: Libarkin, J.C., Gold, A., Harris, S., McNeal, K., Bowles, R., 2018, A new, valid measure of climate change understanding: Associations with risk perception: Climatic Change., v. 150(3), p. 403-416.

Earth Systems Science Item Bank
A valid and reliable bank of items designed for diagnosis of alternative conceptions and assessment of learning around Earth’s spheres. Rasch analysis was used to evaluate the relationship of ability to items and to allow comparison of understanding within one sphere to another.

Publication of results and items is ongoing.

Learn more about geocognition and geoscience education research.

Research to Publication: Materials to Guide the Manuscript-Writing Process

I am teaching a new course this semester (Fall 2018) called Research to Publication. Hopefully, the students in the course will all write a manuscript by the end of the semester and submit it to either their co-authors or a journal! Stay tuned…I have promised a party if the course works…

I would like to share the materials I create for this course since writing academic manuscripts is honestly not something we are taught very well. I didn’t learn until well into my postdoc, and mostly by accident.

I am a big fan of open collaboration. If you have any suggestions for additions/changes, let me know! I have pasted the course outline below and will add materials as I teach them.

*Assignments are completed before the course meets that week.
The role of publishing; academic “currency” – who decides? READ (in general): Klingner et al., 2005
ASSIGNMENT: Try answering the following questions now, and revisit this discussion multiple times over the course of the semester.

  1. Why are you interested in learning how to write an academic manuscript?
  2. What do you feel like you still need to learn?
  3. Where else can you turn for assistance with your writing?
Identifying an appropriate journal READ: Where to Publish; Beall’s list
ASSIGNMENT 1: Take time to review the Where To Publish and Beall’s List websites. Consider what you have learned in the context of your own research.

  1. What, if anything, surprised you about Where to Publish and/or Beall’s List?
  2. Describe your area of research for your classmates.
  3. What will be important for you to consider as you choose a journal for your work?
  4. What questions do you have about publishing that your course colleagues might be able to help you answer?

ASSIGNMENT 2: Preparing to write…

  1. What is your manuscript topic? Be as specific as you can.
  2. Identify THREE journals that would be appropriate venues for your work. Explain why you have chosen these journals.
  3. Using Beall’s list, identify ONE journal that seems like it would be a good fit. DO NOT PUBLISH in these journals. I need this information for the WEEK 2 in-class activity!
Basic structure of an article DUE: Deconstruction of THREE articles in your target journal

READ/DISCUSS: Turbek et al., 2016; Perneger and Hudelson, 2004

Visualizing your manuscript! DUE: 12 VISUAL slides of your manuscript

READ: Rougier et al., 2014; Durbin, 2004

Writing research questions and methods DUE: Your research question(s) and methods

READ/DISCUSS: Kallet, 2004

Ethics and bias in the publication process DUE: Write up of THREE cases from

READ/DISCUSS: Gastel and Ray, 2016

Writing and visualizing results DUE: Your results in BOTH text and tables/figures aligned with questions, methods

READ/DISCUSS: Monash University guide

Authorship DUE: Authorship agreement and discussion with your advisor/collaborators

READ/DISCUSS: Shewan and Coats, 2010

Writing discussions and background DUE: Your discussion and background in parallel


Data Management and Publication DUE: Your Data Management Plan

READ/DISCUSS: NSF guide to data management plans; Gil et al., 2016; Costello, 2009

Editor Q&A (Janice Beecher) DUE: THREE questions for the Editor Q&A; Draft manuscript!

READ/DISCUSS: Kostic, 2016

Reviewing manuscripts DUE: Review of TWO manuscripts from classmates

READ/DISCUSS: Wiley guide; Scrimgeour and Prus, 2016

Preparing manuscripts for publication DUE: Revised and formatted manuscript


Reflecting on the process DUE: Submit that paper (to journal or your co-authors)!


The Academic Sexual Misconduct and Violations of Relationship Policies Database

6/7/19: Thanks to the amazing team at METALMARK WEB & DATA (, a new searchable online database is now available:

Updated 9/15/18 to be crystal clear that I include violations of relationship policies within the database.

Over two years ago, I started tracking academic sexual misconduct and violations of relationship policies. I started the project in an attempt to address what I saw as a missing piece of media reporting on misconduct in academia. In general, the media reports on one case at a time, occasionally mentioning other cases although without any sense of the broader culture of sexual harassment within some areas of academia. Since I began tracking cases, the database has grown from a few dozen to over 700 evidenced cases.

Several people have used these data to conduct studies. I will list these here as they get published:

  1. Cantalupo, N. C., & Kidder, W. C. (2018). A Systematic Look at a Serial Problem: Sexual Harassment of Students by University Faculty. Utah Law Review, 2018(3), 4.
  • Academic includes individuals who are employed in any setting where college or university students are working or studying.
  • Sexual misconduct includes: sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual misconduct, stalking, violations of dating policies, violations of campus pornography policies, and similar violations
  • Evidence includes: institutional finding; admission on part of the accused, accused resigned/retired/died before an institution completed an investigation; a settlement by either the accused or the institution was reached with the victim/survivor; documented evidence (usually in form of texts or emails) of sexual misconduct exists; a legal finding of fact was made by a court, with or without legal punishment.


How (and When) to Write the Background Section of a Manuscript

The related posts: How to Review a Manuscript, How to Write a Manuscript, How (and When) to Write the Background Section of a Manuscript.

The background of a paper may have different names depending on your field. It might be called the introduction, or the literature review, or the theoretical framework. Certainly, you should be familiar enough with existing research BEFORE you start a study to know that your work aligns with accepted studies and offers something new. However, WRITING the background should be your LAST step in writing a paper.

  1. As always, look at example papers from the journal you are targeting.
    • How many paragraphs are typical for backgrounds in this journal?
    • What is the purpose of each paragraph?
    • How many sentences are each paragraph?
    • Do backgrounds have subsections?
    • What is the purpose of each subsection? How long? ETC.
  2. Write the literature review backwards. Many people recommend the hourglass method for writing articles. I recommend it for the literature review and discussion. The hourglass starts broad, becomes narrow, and then broadens again. For the literature review, you are writing a broad and narrow piece. For the discussion you are writing narrow and then getting broad.
    • Write the narrowest part of the introduction first. What is your research question? This is the last paragraph of your background (or a separate section depending on the journal)
    • Who in your community cares about this specific research question and your specific findings? Focus in on work that speaks to your specific findings. Someone WITHIN your community has done something similar. Discuss that similar work. This is towards the end of your background.
      • For example, imagine you studied the role that the availability of LEGOS plays in shaping girls’ notions of gender roles. Someone in your community (the TOY-GENDER community) has likely studied LEGOS, or other types of toys, and their impact on gender role notions among girls and boys.
    • What other communities might care about this specific research question and findings? Focus in on work that speaks to your question and findings. Someone OUTSIDE OF your community has done something similar. Discuss that similar work. This is in the middle of your background.
      • Someone outside of your community (in the CAR-GENDER community or the TOY-ETHNICITY community) has likely studied different types of objects (e.g., cars) and their impact on gender role notions among girls and boys; or, the impact of toys on societal role notions among different ethnic groups.
    • In your discussion points, you should have thought beyond your specific question and findings to discuss the broader implications of your work. Other communities studying other concepts related to your work will be interested in the implications of your work. This is near the beginning of your background.
      • People who study TOYS or GENDER (but not necessarily both) or WORKFORCE or PLAY or IDENTITY-BASED PERCEPTIONS (but not necessarily of gender) would be interested in your TOY-GENDER findings in a broad sense. Describe this prior work.
    • The very first paragraph of your paper should set up why your work is so vital. This should be written like this: FACT, FACT, FACT, PROBLEM, HEY – I CAN SOLVE THAT PROBLEM! Like this (I am totally making this up, but in real life there would be references. And don’t judge me – again, I made this up as an example of a first paragragph): Many careers are outside of the reach of young girls, not because of ability, but because of societal expectations. Often, these expectations are transmitted when we are quite young, in the objects we encounter. For example, the toys we play with can instill a sense of how we – as gendered individuals – are expected to engage with the world as we age and begin to work. In the western world, toys are often labeled by the gender group we expect to use them, up to and including use of specific colors (pink, purple) for toys deemed appropriate for girls. This labeling can encourage unconscious bias among parents and children alike, and can shape how young girls view themselves as workers. Reshaping how children play, and what they play with, can have far reaching implications for women in the workforce.

How to Write a Manuscript

The related posts: How to Review a Manuscript, How to Write a Manuscript, How (and When) to Write the Background Section of a Manuscript.

My personal opinion is that writing – especially technical writing – hinges on planning. Set very specific goals. Here is what I would do for an empirical paper; this can be adapted for theory/argument. Let’s say you need to write a journal article. Set a daily goal. Take about a week to dig into article structure and make your blueprint, and each subsequent day do one paragraph/table/figure. You’ll be submitting in 3 months.

  • Pick a journal.
    • Review all of the possible journals.
    • Check to make sure they are legitimate publication venues.
    • Look at metrics that other people might care about (impact factor, who is the publisher).
    • PICK ONE.
  • Examine the structure of articles in that journal.
    • Pick three example articles that you really like and which are similar to the kind of work you will be presenting.
    • Tear each article apart
      • How many sections?
      • How many paragraphs in each section?
        • What is the form and function of each paragraph?
        • How many sentences in each paragraph? ETC.
        • Tear the articles apart down to sentence structure if needed.
  • Based on what you have learned about articles published in this journal, develop a blueprint for the components of your paper. You can model the blueprint in as much detail based on example articles as you are comfortable with. Notice – this should be generic. You are going to drop the story of your research into this blueprint.
  • Once you have that blueprint, I recommend writing in this order:
    • Research question/hypotheses
    • Methods
    • Figures/tables.
    • Bullet points for each figure/table that articulate the information in the figures/table. If a figure/table is in the results section, also write bullet points for the SO WHAT? of each figure/table.
    • Write out bullet points for results not shown in figures/tables.
    • Bullet point discussion themes – these should convey the SO WHAT? of your research and connect to the literature (which you haven’t written up yet). Nail down discussion points – this is the hardest part.
    • The content of the background should be aligned with your discussion. The discussion should consist of:
      • 2-4 very specific findings linked to the work that most closely aligns with your study.
      • 1-3 broader implications that align with work that is linked with some, but not all aspects of your work.
      • 1-3 very broad implications that align with the most general community.
      • Then, and only then, do you write the background (this is the introduction or literature review or theoretical framework or whatever your field calls the background). As you write the background, your discussion points might adjust to accommodate any new literature that you discover. See this post for suggestions about how to write the background.
    • After finish your background, flesh out the discussion by weaving the literature you have cited into the discussion.

How to Review a Manuscript

The related posts: How to Review a Manuscript, How to Write a Manuscript, How (and When) to Write the Background Section of a Manuscript.

Reviewing a manuscript for a professional journal can seem like an overwhelming task, and can be time-consuming. I use this technique to help me dig into a paper quickly.

  1. Read the abstract and the title.
  2. Make a note of the central theme of the paper.
  3. Flip to the research question (usually at end of intro).
  4. Make a note of the connection or lack thereof between the research question and the theme as depicted by title and abstract.
  5. Flip to discussion.
  6. Does the discussion address the theme and question? Often, this is where a paper will fall apart first. Don’t read in great detail yet, just skim for alignment.
  7. If discussion, theme, and question do not align, then your review should focus on this. Do the next steps, but the authors either made a mistake, or didn’t actually do the work as they thought they had.
  8. If discussion, theme, and question all align, then go to methods. As above, check to make sure methods align with theme/question. Now, however, you get to decide if the methods are adequate. Not perfect. Adequate. You can note imperfections, but new reviewers are often too focused on minor details and then miss major errors. Look up any methods that you feel weak on – I do it all the time, especially for stats and even for things I’m an expert on. If I have any questions, I always double-check that my concern is legit.
  9. Dig into the results.
    1. Do the results align with the theme/question/method?
    2. Do the results need to push things further?
    3. Are figures/tables telling the story of the paper or are they difficult to follow?
  10. Dig into the discussion. The biggest mistake I see is a discussion that simply repeats results. A good discussion will tell a reader the SO WHAT of the paper. Seriously, why should anyone care enough to read it?
  11. Remember, you still shouldn’t have read much of the introduction or literature review. Read it now.
    1. Does the introduction link into the discussion?
    2. Does the discussion adequately reference both the literature they cite and the existing literature, in general? Often, people will have a misalignment between the literature they reference and their discussion. You might not know the literature well enough to know what’s missing, but GoogleScholar does.