The Process of Publishing a Research Paper in a Journal
Paradoxically, submitting a research paper for journal publication can feel anticlimactic. It is always a relief, of course, to get the work done and sent off on what could be a long and rewarding journey toward publication. Yet the very length of that journey and the darkness of its route can be frustrating and make the wait for a response from the editor seem all the longer. Knowing what sort of procedures an academic or scientific paper might be undergoing at the hands of journal staff can therefore be reassuring and enable an author to act in ways that hasten or at least do not delay the publishing process.
Since it can seem to researchers who need to publish their work especially quickly as though time is being wasted at a great rate, there is comfort in recognising that necessary actions are usually taking place from the moment a paper arrives at a journal. Although there are journals with enormous backlogs, leaving papers to sit for significant periods of time, the managers of modern scholarly journals tend to be keenly aware that authors are waiting impatiently. Primary among their goals is efficiently moving submitted manuscripts through the publication system so that worthy studies can be successfully published in a timely fashion for readers as well as authors.
Authors can facilitate this process by following the journal’s instructions with precision and consistency. A paper that has been submitted properly and arrived safely on the right desktop will usually undergo an initial screening or technical check to ensure that the author has observed the most obvious of the journal’s guidelines for preparing manuscripts. A plagiarism check will probably be conducted as well, and papers are commonly given a basic assessment to weed out research and writing of a very low quality. For these and other reasons, your paper can be rejected or returned for amendments before it even reaches an editor or subject specialist. It is therefore important to ensure that you follow the author instructions precisely, write and proofread your paper with care, and ensure that the work you are submitting is original and significant.
Manuscripts deemed worthy of editorial and peer review are then sent on to the appropriate editor. Both the type of paper and its content can determine who this will be, and the decision might be made based on a category you selected in the online submission form, on the way in which you introduce your article in your cover letter, on the judgement of technical staff who scan your paper or in some other way. This editor will assess the manuscript again and may decide to reject it instead of sending it on for peer review. This kind of desk rejection is particularly common in the current climate of overworked reviewers because proofreaders naturally want reviewers to focus the time they have available on the best papers. If your manuscript is rejected at this point, the editor may suggest ways in which it can be improved to be reconsidered for peer review. A prompt response and instantaneous revisions can mean a quick return to the publishing process.
When the editor deems your paper worthy of peer review, two or more reviewers are usually chosen. One of these might be picked from experts you suggested as potential reviewers in your initial submission. In a perfect world, every reviewer contacted by the editor would immediately accept the job and complete it at once, but academics and scientists tend to be incredibly busy. Some will not be able to accept; others will accept initially, but not prove able to complete the report on time; most will require some gentle prodding by the editor, who must be as patient as the author at this point. As specialists in your field, these reviewers will be assessing the quality of your research and results as well as your interpretation of your work and the nature of your manuscript. They can recommend immediate acceptance without changes or immediate rejection without reconsideration, but reconsideration after minor or perhaps major changes have been made is particularly common.
The final decision about acceptance lies with the editor, however, who considers the comments and recommendations of all reviewers before contacting the author. He or she will probably include constructive suggestions from the reviewers in the decision letter and ideally indicate that complying with the changes requested will mean reconsideration and, if necessary, re-review. Sometimes an editor will offer his or her own suggestions along with the reviewer comments, even ones that might help you deal with unreasonable or conflictive requests from the peer reviewers. All the comments you receive should therefore be read very closely with as much objectivity and insight as possible to ensure that you understand exactly what is intended. Only so can you decide what will be good for your paper and what will not.
If you are planning to revise and resubmit your manuscript, you will need to address in a constructive way every one of the suggestions or comments offered by the editor and peer reviewers. A detailed letter to the editor should accompany your revised manuscript to explain exactly what you have changed and also what you did not change, including in the latter case a compelling academic or scientific reason why you were not able to accommodate the suggestions. If the changes you have made are minor, the editor alone may decide whether the revised paper can be accepted or not, but if they are deemed major, another review may be needed to ensure that flaws have been fixed and problems resolved. It is not uncommon for this process of review and revision to be repeated more than once, so try to keep an open mind and remember that the goal of publication grows closer with each improvement.
When the paper is finally accepted by the editor, it goes into production for final checking and reformatting to fit the journal’s conventions and styles. As the author, you may be asked to help resolve layout problems, you may need to request and obtain permissions, and you will almost certainly have to take care of administrative matters such as fees and publishing agreements. The author will also be asked to do a final proofreading of the article once it has been copyedited and typeset. A day or two might be all that you are allowed for this process, which should focus exclusively on necessary corrections and adjustments. Once those final changes have been added by the journal, the paper is ready for publication. It may, in fact, have already been posted on the journal’s website as an article still in press as soon as it was accepted or it may be made available in that way only at this point as it awaits assignment to a specific issue of the journal. When the article is at last published online with page numbers in a formal issue of the journal, it will usually be released in print as well, unless the journal is strictly an online entity.
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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.