What happens to an article after it has been submitted to a journal?

A couple of weeks ago, I did a workshop with a group of doctoral students in which we talked about academic publishing. One of the themes that came up in the discussion is that many of them felt reasonably confident when it came to writing about their research, but were apprehensive about whatever happens after the article is submitted. The reasons, it seems, were because this aspect of publishing is out of the authors’ control, but also because the process through which articles are selected for publication is rather opaque. Prompted by this, I have put together some information about what happens to articles after they have been submitted to a journal for consideration .

The post is organised in four sections, which will provide you with information on:

  1. The initial screening by the editor;
  2. How reviewers are selected;
  3. How peer review is done;
  4. The editor’s decision.

Initial editorial screening

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When a manuscript is received by a journal, it is screened by the editor (or an associate editor). The editor’s role, at this stage, is to read the paper with a view to ensuring that:

  • The topic fits the scope of the journal. For example, the journal I (co)edit, Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, does not accept papers on literary criticism. This may sound obvious, but some authors either misunderstand the remit of the journals to which they submit, and others just submit articles randomly, which results in some odd submissions.
  • The format, language and length of the submission are consistent with the expectations of the journal. This information will normally be stated in the webpage of the journal, often under the heading ‘Author Guidelines’ or something similar. Again, this might sound obvious, but if a journal only publishes articles, they will not consider book reviews, theses, poems, fictionalised dialogues, and so on.
  • There are no obvious omissions. This is done to ensure that the submission is not missing pages, appendices, tables, and so on. Some common mistakes include submitting the list of references as a separate document, or not attaching tables etc.
  • There are no obvious ethical violations. Publications standards vary, but most journals are increasingly cautious about publishing research that does not meet accepted practices of ethical rigour . If there are serious ethical questions about a study (e.g., intervention studies with minors conducted without evidence of ethical approval), the editor may decide that it is unpublishable.
  • There are no procedural problems. This involves checking that the author is not trying to resubmit an unrevised version of a previously rejected article, or trying to exceed a publication quota (e.g., submitting more than one article per year, or whatever policy the journal has in place).
  • If the journal uses double-blind review, the editor will also make sure that there is no identifying information in the manuscript, which can reveal the author’s identity.

Papers that are obviously unpublishable or very unlikely to survive peer-review are rejected by the editor (or “desk rejected”). The remaining papers are then sent to peer reviewers.

Selecting peer reviewers

Assuming the editor is satisfied that there are no serious problems with the manuscript, they will forward an anonymised version of your paper to two or three qualified academics (the peer reviewers), who are invited to weigh in on its publication potential.

Peer reviewers have two roles. One is to help you, the authors, to present your work in the best possible way. To do this, they will identify any weaknesses in your article, and suggest ways in which the paper can be improved. Sometimes it will also meant that they will prevent you from coming forward to public discourse with certain ideas, before you are ready to share them. Their second role is to protect the integrity of the scholarly record. In this sense, they are like gate-keepers, whose job is to ensure that papers are published only when they meet a threshold of academic rigour.

In more prosaic terms, peer reviewers help editors decide which articles to publish. They do so by carefully reading your work, and evaluating its novelty, rigour, and clarity. It is not normally part of a peer-reviewer’s remit to copy-edit your work, or check it for plagiarism, although many do.

Types of peer review

There are many different types of peer-review. The most important distinctions connect to whether the identities of the author(s) and reviewers are known or confidential.

  • Single-blind review: reviewers know the authors’ identity; authors do not know reviewers;
  • Double-blind review: reviewers and authors are unaware of each others’ identity;
  • Open peer review: reviewers and authors are informed of each others’ identity (sometimes conducted post-publication).

Who can review your article?

Articles are sent to reviewers who have expertise in the field of the study. These might be the world’s leading experts on a topic, or they could be scholars whose work you quote, or more likely they are academics who are broadly familiar with the field, but do not have expert knowledge in all aspects of the paper. In this sense, feedback from peer reviewers is different from the kind of feedback you can expect from a thesis supervisor, with whom you are likely to inhabit the same disciplinary subfield, and who is likely to be much more knowledgeable than you are. It is very important to keep this in mind when writing your article, so that you can frame your study in the broad discourse of the field, and anchor it approriately to reference points that make sense to likely reviewers.

People who work in the same university or the same research project as you do will most likely be excluded from the review, so as to prevent any suspicion of bias. People who have already read your manuscript or are well acquainted with your work are also likely to be excluded, and it is your responsibility to let the editor know about any such cases.

You can also request that specific individuals not be considered as reviewers, if you have reason to believe that their judgement would be unfair. This is more frequently an issue in the sciences and medical research, where publishing is more competitive, but if you have legitimate reason to doubt the impartiality of specific reviewers, you need to share these concerns with the editor. That said, the editor may decide to overrule your concerns.

The process of peer review

A reviewer will typically receive an invitation to review your article, which will include your title and abstract (but normally not your name). An established, research-active academic might receive several such invitations every month, and will only agree to review the ones that are most promising, based on their initial reading of the abstract. This is why it is very important that you use the abstract to state very explicitly what is original and noteworthy about your study, rather than assume that it will become clear once the entire paper is read, because your research ‘will speak for itself’. Unclear, hastily-written abstracts are quite difficult to place with reviewers, and the process of finding qualified readers could take weeks.

What are reviewers reading for?

Sometimes the editor will ask reviewers to comment on specific aspects of a paper, possibly using pre-defined rating scales. Other editors request more open-ended reviews. Generally speaking, most reviewers will critically read your paper with the following questions in mind:

  • Does the literature review point to a gap in the literature?
  • Is this gap worth investigating?
  • Do the research questions correspond to the gap identified?
  • Are the methods / sample appropriate for the questions posed?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of the methods used?
  • Is it clear how the data were generated using these methods?
  • So what? Now what?

The amount of time reviewers spend on a paper varies. It usually takes me one or two evenings; other people I know have told me it takes them anything from a few hours to a few days. This often depends on the quality of the manuscript, too. The best and worst ones seem to be easier to process; on the other hand, promising but problematic papers often require extensive comments and a considerable investment in time. Personal reviewing styles are also different: some reviewers only offer broad comments, whereas others are more likely to micro-edit. Either way, it is reasonable to assume that a review will be returned to the journal between 6 and 8 weeks after the paper has been assigned to a reviewer.

The reviewer report

After reading the paper, every reviewer will send the editor a report. This is likely to consist of three parts:

  • A recommendation regarding the article’s suitability for publication. This is likely to be selected from a range of pre-determined options. Depending on the journal’s policy, this information may be shared with the authors, or maybe not.
  • A section with comments to the author(s). This is probably the largest part of the review. It might range from a couple of paragraphs to a couple of pages in length. Some reviewers divide the ‘comments to the author’ section in two main parts, according to importance: main points and minor suggestions. Others list their comments in the order that they were prompted by the texts. Some reviewers also use their word processor’s commenting function to record their remarks, rather than writing a report.
  • A confidential section with comments to the editor. This section of the review is used to alert the editor about any concerns the reviewer has, which they are not comfortable sharing. For instance, they may recommend a more thorough plagiarism check, provide a rationale for their recommendation, or use explicit language to clarify the more diplomaticly formulated remarks they wrote to the authors. Most reviews I have seen/written did not include this section, though.

The editorial decision

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After taking into account the reviewers’ recommendations, the editor will reach a decision. This is likely to be in line with the recommendations, but does not necessarily have to be the same. The editorial decision is likely to be one of the following four:

  1. Rejection: Papers can be rejected for a number of reasons, such as poor fit with the scope of the journal, a failure to point out what is original about the study, lack of clarity in the way the arguments are put forward, or questionable research practices. Some editors distinguish between different types of rejections (e.g., ‘submit elsewhere’, ‘ho hope’), so it is important to read though the lines of the rejection letter. Generally, most studies that have been conducted in good faith (i.e., without serious lapses in rigour or ethics) can be published eventually, even after an initial rejection: This can be done either by submitting to a more appropriate journal, or by using the feedback to improve the way the study is reported.
  2. Request for major revisions: This decision means that the editor and reviewers believe that the study reported in the paper is fundamentally sound and worth publishing, but needs more work. For instance, they might believe that your theoretical framework is underdeveloped, or that you have to reanalyse some data, or that you have to expand some parts of the paper and delete others. Papers with major revisions are normally sent out for review once again, sometimes to a new set of reviewers. A ‘revise and resubmit’ with major revisions is definitely not a guarantee that your paper will be published, but it means that you are getting there.
  3. Request for minor revisions: This decision means that the editors would probably like to see the paper published in the journal, but there may be some stylistic, formatting or other minor points to address. Usually, papers with minor revisions are evaluated by the editor, rather than being sent out for an additional round of review. A request for minor revisions is not a promise to publish your paper, but the odds look good.
  4. Acceptance: It is extremely uncommon for a paper to be unconditionally accepted without revisions, but if it happens, then there’s no reason not to rejoice!

More likely than not, the email with the editorial decision will also contain any comments made by the peer reviewers, or at least a selection of these remarks that the editor feels that are most constructive. Accepting such criticism is not always easy (as I have written here), but it usually results in a better paper. When time permits, I will follow up with a post discussing possible ways to respond to reviewer comments. Until then, I wish you all the best in your publishing endeavours!

Featured Image: adikos @ Flickr | CC-BY

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