The 12 Steps of Publishing Papers in Peer-Reviewed Journals
The process of publishing an academic or scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal can be far more complicated than new authors anticipate. There are usually several key stages and many hands that manuscripts must pass through, and even the best of papers that are accepted very quickly cannot skip most of them. Authors play a direct part in some of the necessary procedures, and an accurate understanding of all of them enables the careful preparations and effective responses that can increase not only the efficiency of the process, but also the chances of successful publication at the end of the journey.
1. The author chooses the right journal for the research and paper.
This is no simple matter and can make all the difference in the world, so it is imperative for the author to learn everything he or she can about the targeted journals. The disciplinary range and areas of specialisation are particularly important, as are a journal’s aims and objectives. The type of results the author has achieved, the length of the study and even the number and type of tables and figures used to present the research may determine whether the manuscript will be (or can be reshaped to be) a good fit for the journal. There may be one journal more likely than the others to publish the paper; another may offer wide dissemination and high impact factors; still another will be sure to reach that small community of specialists who work in the field. The decision may therefore be a tough one, but remember that submitting a paper to more than one journal simultaneously is considered ethically questionable if not frowned upon entirely. In most cases, an author’s chances of success will be increased by choosing one appropriate journal and tailoring the paper carefully to that journal’s needs and requirements before submitting it for consideration.
2. The author prepares the manuscript in accordance with journal guidelines or instructions.
Among the many ways of tailoring a paper to the requirements of a particular journal is ensuring that it conforms in every way to the instructions or guidelines the journal provides for authors. Whether these instructions are long, precise and detailed or short, general and even confusing, they must be closely consulted and followed as much as possible. If the guidelines leave questions about formatting certain aspects of the paper unanswered, articles recently published by the journal can be helpful as successful models. The overall length of a manuscript, the recommended structure and headings for the type of paper, the design requirements and placement of any tables and figures, and the documentation method and style of references are among the most common instructions, and neglecting to observe them results in highly visible errors. Do not forget to watch for any instructions about eliminating personal information for peer-reviewing practices in which the author’s identity must be concealed from reviewers. When writing in the English language, watch for a preference for British or American English as well. These requirements must be adhered to with precision and consistency throughout the manuscript.
3. The author submits the manuscript exactly as the journal requests and describes.
Academic and scientific journals usually provide detailed instructions for submitting manuscripts successfully. Although very few still ask authors to post, email or fax their papers, when a journal does, an author should not hesitate to do what is requested. Much more common now are online submission forms, which can help an author ensure that the paper, any ancillary files and the necessary personal information are all submitted just as they should be. Online forms can also introduce problems, however, so they must be read and completed with care. A tiny error can result in a paper going to the wrong editor, being considered for an inappropriate section of the journal or, in the case of large publishers, being sent to a different journal altogether. Pay special attention to such options and categories as well as to the types of files required for the main manuscript and any additional documents. Be sure to complete necessary submission checklists and include publishing fees, and, even if it is not specifically requested in the instructions, do add a cover letter if possible to introduce the research and paper in appealing ways.
4. Journal staff do an initial check or screening of the manuscript.
A submitted manuscript usually undergoes an initial screening or technical check. This can involve checking for damaged files, for information missing from the submission and for manuscripts that do not conform to journal guidelines in obvious ways such as exceeding length limits, neglecting to include essential parts of the paper and using the wrong type or style of references. Papers are usually checked for plagiarism at this point as well, for extremely poor writing and general low quality, and for topics and subjects that are completely outside the journal’s range. At a smaller journal this initial screening might be performed by an editor or even an expert in the field, but often it is the job of office, administrative or technical rather than academic or scientific staff. Screening procedures tend to be growing more rigorous these days in order to alleviate pressure on overburdened editors and reviewers, so there is no doubt that a manuscript can be rejected at this early stage no matter who does the initial check. The author may or may not be told exactly why and may or may not be asked to resolve the problems and resubmit the paper. If possible, make the necessary corrections and send the revised paper back, but remember that it is always best to avoid failing this first test via careful attention to Steps 1 through 3 above.
5. The appropriate editor assesses the manuscript for further consideration.
Once a manuscript passes the initial screening, it moves on to editorial assessment. At the smallest journals, there may be only one or two editors, but at larger journals the particular editor can be assigned in various ways. The author may have chosen a category on the submissions form that determined the editor or offered a suggestion about a specific editor or subject area. The description of the research in the cover letter or abstract or both might have prompted technical staff or a chief editor to choose the editor for the manuscript – one of the many reasons why an accurate and informative cover letter and abstract are essential. Research connections with one editor may have even introduced a conflict that resulted in the paper being sent to a different editor. Whatever the mechanisms behind the assignment may be, the editor will look more closely at the manuscript to determine whether it is appropriate in terms of academic or scientific quality and content for both the journal and its readers. If it is not, the paper may receive a desk rejection with or without any indication of what should be changed to earn reconsideration. If, on the other hand, the editor offers constructive suggestions for amendments before the manuscript can be sent on for peer review, the key to success is to do whatever proves necessary to resolve the problems, resubmit the paper as soon as possible and continue the publishing process.
6. The manuscript is peer reviewed by experts in the author’s academic or scientific field.
A positive assessment by the assigned editor usually means that the manuscript will be sent on for peer review. This can be a particularly complicated and arduous experience for everyone involved, but it is at present seen as the most reliable means of maintaining high scholarly standards. The editor generally chooses reviewers independently, but the author can help in a number of ways: by describing his or her research clearly and accurately in the cover letter and abstract; by freely disclosing connections and potential conflicts of interest; and by suggesting experts who would be appropriate or inappropriate reviewers for the paper. Reviewers must then be contacted and only some will be willing or able to take on the extra work, and only some of those will actually complete a review report on time. Peer reviewers who assess the manuscript might consider the reliability of the research methodology, the validity of the author’s results and interpretations, and the ethical approach of the researcher. On the other hand, they might focus on poor grammatical constructions, inaccurate references or an author’s failure to adhere to journal guidelines. The reviewers will be approaching the research from different perspectives, so their concerns and opinions may vary widely and their suggestions for changes may even be conflictive, with one asking that something should be expanded while another will want it removed altogether. Along with specific comments, a review report will contain a recommendation for editorial action based on one of usually four options:
a. Accept the paper without changes
b. Reconsider the paper after minor revisions (perhaps without a follow-up review)
c. Reconsider the paper after major revisions (usually with a follow-up review)
d. Reject the paper
A few journals are beginning to use interactive methods in which reviewers discuss the manuscript directly with the author and collaborative methods in which reviewers discuss the manuscript with each other, but these remain in the minority for the present.
7. The editor considers the reviews and makes a decision about the manuscript.
With the expert reviews finally in hand, the editor can make an informed decision about whether the manuscript should continue its journey toward publication or not. He or she will examine the peer reviewers’ comments, consider their recommendations and perhaps consult other editors or specialists before making the final decision based on those four options listed in Step 6. If the author is fortunate enough to be informed that the paper has been accepted without the need for changes, rejoicing is in order and the next relevant step here is number 10 below. If, on the other hand, the manuscript is simply rejected at this point for major issues such as lack of originality, serious conceptual or methodological flaws and extremely poor grammar or other language issues, it is unlikely that resubmission will prove successful without a complete overhaul of the paper, though any comments offered by the editor and reviewers will be worthy of some attention before the submission process begins again at a different journal. Instead of immediate acceptance or rejection, many authors receive requests for changes, especially minor ones, before their papers can be reconsidered for publication. In making these requests the editor may be selective in choosing the reviewer comments that are shared with an author, may add additional comments and suggestions for the author to consider, and may even offer hints or explicit advice on how to resolve conflicts among the comments made by reviewers. The editor (or his or her assistant) generally writes a letter or email message to inform the author of the decision, share the expert suggestions and outline any additional requirements such as revising within word limits or meeting a deadline for resubmission. If the quality of the manuscript is adequate, but after review the editor nonetheless decides that it is not suitable for the journal, he or she may suggest that the paper be submitted to an associated journal or even offer to transfer the submission along with the peer reviews to the new journal.
8. The author assesses the comments of the editor and reviewers and revises the paper for resubmission.
As Step 7 suggests, a letter from a journal editor regarding the changes necessary before the publication process of a manuscript can continue may be long and complicated, and there may also be extra documents or attachments from the reviewers and conflictive recommendations to digest. Remember that both the editor and the reviewers have invested considerable time and effort into the paper, so the prospect is a good one, but that editor can still reject the manuscript at any time due to inappropriate subject matter, a lack of quality on a variety of levels, flawed data and results, or an unwillingness or inability to resolve these problems. Careful critical reading of everything the editor has sent is absolutely necessary, as is an open mind about the views of other experts and their ability to help with improving the research and writing. Attend to every detail, whether it seems important or not, and change whatever is required as long as it will not compromise the work or prove utterly impossible or irrelevant. Once the changes are completed, a detailed letter to the editor about exactly what has been changed as well as what has not been changed is necessary. Using a list format and quoting specific comments and changes can increase clarity, and what could not be changed will appear in a more positive light if it is clearly explained on academic or scientific grounds and follows all the improvements that have been made. Be sure to send both the revised paper and the explanatory letter to the editor exactly as he or she requests and to do so well within the time allotted.
9. The manuscript is reassessed by the editor and perhaps re-reviewed by the reviewers.
The author’s letter explaining changes and improvements to the editor may also be seen in whole or in part by the reviewers, an important consideration to keep in mind. The reviewers may not always be involved in this second level of review and assessment, of course, but when the changes requested are major ones, the manuscript is usually sent on to the same or another qualified reviewer to ensure that the flawed aspects of the research or paper have been repaired. Changes considered minor, on the hand, might be assessed by the editor alone, who makes the final decision regardless of whether the reviewers see the manuscript a second time or not. In some cases, this process of review and revision occurs several times until the editor and reviewers deem the research and manuscript worthy of publication in the journal. Patience, persistence and the intellectual flexibility to consider new comments and changes at any time are valuable virtues. Yes, rejection can still be the result even after layers of requested revisions, but it is rare if everyone works with the central goal of producing not just publishable, but the very best scholarly work.
10. The manuscript is accepted and enters production.
Once the manuscript is approved and accepted by the editor, it enters a production phase in which the paper is prepared for publication, perhaps under the supervision of the journal manager or chief editor. Exactly what takes place during production and precisely who does the work in what order vary among journals, with online publication and prepublication complicating matters further. Generally speaking, however, the manuscript will go through a final check to ensure that all parts of the paper along with all of its tables, figures and other necessary aspects are present, complete and meet the requirements set out in the journal guidelines. Copyediting will be done to correct any remaining errors in grammar, spelling and nomenclature, and to conform the manuscript to the journal’s stylistic conventions. Typesetting also takes place to convert the text, tables, figures, references and ancillary elements to the journal’s standard layout. Although this stage largely takes place independent of the author, there may be questions and adjustments for the author to consider, and permissions and other administrative matters will require attention as well. Actions commonly required of the author during this process are described in Step 11.
11. The author proofreads the article, makes necessary corrections and attends to questions and administrative matters.
During the production of an article questions may arise about the design, quality and placement of visual aids, especially if any tables or figures of an unusual nature have been used. Permissions will be required for using any images or other elements from copyrighted sources, and it is usually the job of the author to request these and pay the reproduction fees. Other fees connected with publication should also be paid if they have not been attended to earlier, and the publishing contract, licensing agreement and any other documents associated with copyright issues should be finalised and signed. In all cases, whatever the journal staff ask of the author at this point should be attended to exactly as requested and as soon as possible to prevent any delays in the production process. Some journals will offer an article tracking service that can help authors anticipate when their input may be required. At some point in the production stage and certainly before the final version of the paper is published, the author will be asked to proofread the manuscript and correct errors. Whether the author must mark up PDF files or indicate alterations via an online proofing system, it is standard procedure to avoid any changes beyond necessary corrections at this point. Keep in mind that every correction requires what may prove to be major changes in the layout of the typeset manuscript, and the turnover time for this final proofing tends to be very short indeed.
12. The article is published and made available to the journal’s readers.
This used to be a single stage of formal print publication, but with modern online journals a scientific or academic article is often published more than once. Virtually as soon as the paper is accepted, for instance, it might be made available online for early viewing in a section of the journal’s website dedicated to articles in press or in production. The final copyediting, typesetting and author proofing of the manuscript might take place before or after a prepublication version of the paper is released. If these editorial procedures have not yet occurred, a qualifier to that effect is usually included, as is a DOI (or digital object identifier) for early citations. The few journals that use a post-publication system of peer review will at this point invite expert reviewers or allow volunteer reviewers to comment on the paper, giving the author another opportunity to make changes and improvements, although this practice is still rare. The final version of the paper will be published only after copyediting, typesetting and proofing have been completed and the paper has been assigned to a particular issue of the journal, which is often released in print and online simultaneously. The article will then have page numbers as well as a DOI for citations and it will have a second publication date as well. Offprints of the article are usually available if the journal is published in print, with a certain number presented to the author free of charge. Depending on the access provided by the journal or the access the author may have chosen or purchased, there are usually opportunities to promote the new digital article and share it with colleagues via the journal’s website.
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