How Journal Editors and Peer Reviewers Make Decisions at Journals
Scholarly journals vary widely – in the content they consider, in the styles and modes of presentation they prefer, in the peer-reviewing practices they use and in the reasons that lie behind their decisions to publish or not publish a paper. As a general rule, however, high-quality original research on a topic within a given journal’s scope and clearly presented in accordance with its guidelines and broader academic or scientific standards is desirable. To ensure that this is what they actually publish, reputable journals tend to apply more than one level of assessment to an academic or scientific manuscript submitted for consideration, and several people – editors, peer reviewers and sometimes technical and administrative staff as well – will be involved in deciding whether that manuscript is accepted and ultimately published or not.
The decision-making process of any one journal might therefore be quite complex and involve many separate procedures, but since they will be slightly different at each journal, it is perhaps most useful to think of three main stages of evaluation and subsequent decision making that take place at peer-reviewed scientific and academic journals. The first stage consists of a technical and editorial screening; the second is the peer review process itself; and the third is the assessment of reviewer reports and the final publishing decision.
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1. The technical and editorial screening prior to peer review.
So many manuscripts are now submitted to academic and scientific journals each month that rigorous pre-review screening has become the norm to alleviate pressure on overworked peer reviewers. This initial screening focuses on ensuring that a submitted manuscript is potentially suitable for publication and therefore worthy of peer review. Exactly who does the screening or any part of it depends on the particular journal and its staff. An administrative staff member or technical assistant who receives online submissions might, for instance, ensure that all the files in a submission are complete and undamaged, that all personal information is provided in the correct ways and that no parts of the manuscript reveal a similarity to published text that might constitute plagiarism. That person or perhaps a graduate student who works within the author’s discipline might also check the manuscript for adherence to the journal’s guidelines for authors regarding length limits, the structural organisation of the paper, the type of references, the version of English preferred and any other formatting, stylistic and presentation requirements. The subject specialist or perhaps an editor or even the journal’s editor-in-chief might look more closely at the content of the manuscript to determine if the research topic lies within the journal’s scope in terms of content and importance, and if the methodology, results and interpretations are valid and sufficiently original to merit publication. The clarity and quality of an author’s writing may also come under scrutiny by one or more of these individuals because poor writing cannot accurately communicate complex research.
Precisely how each of these and other possible checks are performed and how the decisions based on them are made and shared with the author naturally depend on who is checking and deciding. A paper that clearly reports excellent research but neglects to use the structure or documentation style indicated in the journal guidelines might therefore be immediately rejected by technical staff without any indication of why, whereas a paper on an especially hot topic or an issue of particular interest to the editor considering it might be sent on to reviewers despite glaring grammatical errors that will ultimately need to be corrected by the author. What is certain, however, is that rejection can come from various angles during the pre-review screening process, and anything considered below the quality threshold for content, language and formatting set by the journal can earn it. It is therefore imperative for authors to follow all guidelines and instructions with precision and consistency throughout their manuscripts before submitting their writing to a journal, and if anything has been neglected, to attend to the necessary changes at once. Also incredibly helpful during this initial screening process is a carefully written cover letter that explains what is especially innovative and valuable about the research and why the manuscript reporting it is a perfect fit for the journal and its readers.
2. The peer review process.
Once a manuscript has been deemed worthy of review, qualified peer reviewers (usually two or three, but possibly up to six) are chosen and contacted. The reviewers must have the knowledge, skills, research experience and methodological expertise necessary to assess the author’s research. Usually a single editor is assigned to oversee the peer review process, so he or she will choose these experts, considering any conflicts of interest the author reports, perhaps using suggestions offered by the author and maybe after consultation with other editors at the journal. The journal or individual editor may provide reviewers with specific instructions for reviewing manuscripts, and experienced reviewers will often have their own checklists as well, so it is impossible to say exactly what a particular peer reviewer will focus on or find either brilliant or problematic. As experts in the field of study or area of specialisation, however, they are necessarily going to focus on the quality and significance of the research, the clarity and accuracy with which the author reports it, and the intellectual and practical impact of the interpretations and implications offered by the author. Accurate and thorough references and clarity regarding matters of research funding and support will be concerns for many reviewers, but any part or aspect of a paper can come under the most intense scrutiny. Prominent elements such as the title, the abstract, the introduction, the description of methodology and results, as well as the rigour and validity of those methods and findings, will always be examined carefully, and so might citations and quotations, grammar and specialised terminology, or visual aids such as tables, graphs and other figures. If there is an error in fact or logic or procedure, one of the reviewers will no doubt point it out; if an author neglects to discuss and situate his or her work within published scholarship, a reviewer will request that it be done; if speculation in discussing results takes an author too far beyond the research reported in the manuscript, a reviewer will wave a red flag; if instances of plagiarism have been missed by screening staff, expert reviewers will usually catch them.
As a general rule, it is more common for peer reviewers to comment on matters associated with improving the written presentation and discussion of research than on matters associated with improving the ways in which the research was actually conducted, so much of their criticism will be related to various aspects of effective presentation, description and interpretation. Along with detailed comments and suggestions for improvements, each reviewer will usually provide the editor with a recommendation for the manuscript. Recommendations for rejection without reconsideration are common in a saturated publishing climate and these sometimes come with no more than one or two major reasons why rather than detailed suggestions for improvement. Acceptance without any changes at all is an extremely rare reviewer recommendation. Most reviewers recommend reconsideration after changes are made, whether these changes are considered minor (such as altering the style of references, correcting spelling and adjusting the design of tables) or major (redesigning and repeating research would be major, as would completely rewriting a manuscript to resolve significant problems with language or the interpretation of results). They might also recommend re-review before acceptance, especially to check if major flaws or problems have been corrected. The opinions and judgements of reviewers can have a significant impact on the final decision to publish a paper or not, but peer reviewers do not actually make that decision.
3. The assessment of reviewer reports and the final publishing decision.
The editor overseeing the peer review process is usually the person who decides whether the manuscript should be rejected, reconsidered when changes have been made or accepted as is without changes. In some cases, he or she might consult other editors or subject specialists at the journal, and often the editor-in-chief will make or at least approve the final decision for acceptance before it is shared with the author. It is even rarer for an editor than for a peer reviewer to accept a paper immediately without any changes, and the editorial decision-making process can in fact be quite complex. The reviewers chosen for a manuscript, for instance, may vary widely in their perspectives on the research, its value and its meaning. Since individual opinions based on varied expertise is the goal of using more than one reviewer, this is positive, but it does mean that the very aspect of a manuscript that receives praise from one reviewer may well require revision from the perspective of another. If the editor is requesting changes from an author, he or she may leave that author to work out revisions that will address the concerns of all reviewers, but in many instances the editor will resolve serious differences of opinion by preferring the views of one reviewer, bringing in additional reviewers for new perspectives or suggesting to the author how conflicts might best be resolved.
Although the journal editor will always take the comments and suggestions of reviewers very seriously, there may be instances in which the report provided by a peer reviewer is simply inappropriate, presenting still more challenging decisions. Perhaps a reviewer was too rushed, for example, and did only a cursory or incomplete job. Perhaps his or her comments seem incorrect to the editor either because the reviewer did not have the knowledge or expertise necessary for an effective assessment or because the reviewer’s perspective is obviously biassed or the comments clearly generated by personal ambition. In such cases, the editor may need to ignore an entire review report or at least large portions of it, and perhaps invite further opinions from new reviewers or editorial colleagues. In almost every case the editor assigned to a manuscript will add his or her own comments and suggestions as well. These will very likely differ, perhaps significantly, from the feedback offered by reviewers – unless the editor shares the author’s specialisation, after all, he or she is unlikely to focus on the same issues as the expert reviewers. The editor is, however, very likely to be concerned about the readership of the journal, the space available in each issue and other aspects of the publication’s quality, impact and continuing success. The length of the manuscript may be a concern as may the language in which it is written, especially if there are problems with grammar and the like that obscure or confuse the author’s meaning. Adherence to the structural, stylistic and documentation guidelines provided by the journal may arise again, visual elements such as tables and figures may be flagged for redesign or fine tuning, and matters such as ethical practices, reporting standards and conflicts of interest may be scrutinised.
The editors of scholarly journals often surprise authors with their thoughts and suggestions for improvements, and they can certainly decide to reject papers that peer reviewers would have them accept. In fact, an editor is far more likely to reject a manuscript on the basis of one reviewer’s recommendation than to accept a manuscript on the same grounds, and most require more acceptance recommendations to come to a positive decision than they require rejection recommendations to arrive at a negative one. Their decisions may also become protracted, with authors asked to revise their work more than one time for reconsideration and perhaps re-review by the same or new peer reviewers. Although requests to revise mean that a manuscript has the potential to be published in the journal and the editor may be more reluctant to reject it than one that has not begun the review and revision cycle, they do not mean that the paper is already publishable, so the editor at any stage of the process or even the editor-in-chief at the very end can decide to reject the manuscript. A continuing need for major changes after a round of revision and re-review, for instance, often means that a manuscript is destined for rejection, but if that is the final result, the reasons have usually been made abundantly clear to the author, who can use that valuable feedback to improve the paper before submitting it elsewhere for fresh scrutiny and new decisions. If, on the other hand, the author’s hard work earns the paper acceptance, other staff at the journal will begin making decisions as the manuscript enters production and is copyedited and typeset.
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