What is Journal Peer Review?
Peer review is the assessment of work (review) of an individual or group performed by experts within the same field as the authors of the work (peers). This article gives information to researchers about the usual steps involved once you submit a manuscript to peer reviewed journals and what you as an author should expect. There are many steps involved in the peer review process, and it’s not unusual for a research paper to take over 6 months to be published from the time of your first submission.
As an academic policy, peer reviews should be constructive. They are carried out by a panel of at least two expert reviewers, together with input and a final decision by the journal editor or editorial committee. It’s expected that reviewers, besides assessing the academic content of an article, should also contribute with constructive criticism and recommendations for how the submitted article could be improved. Regardless of whether or not the article is accepted, the feedback provided should help the authors either strengthen the manuscript or reconsider how the study could be improved.
Read on to gain a better understanding of the different steps involved in the manuscript review journey.
The Steps in the Peer Review Journey
1. Receipt of Manuscript
Upon completing the submission of a manuscript to a journal, an email is sent to the authors to acknowledge receipt and informing them that the review process has begun. This is often an automated email that is sent on the assumption that the authors have met all the submission requirements of the journal; these are typically that the manuscript formatting is correct (e.g. line spacing, line numbering and referencing style), that details on all authors have been provided (e.g. name, credentials and affiliations) and all potential conflicts of interest have been declared.
2. Confirmation of Adherence to Journal Guidelines
In a second step, the editorial team manually checks that the manuscript has been written in accordance with the formal requirements of the journal and all relevant accompanying documentation has been provided too. If the requirements are not met, the manuscript will not start the review process; the authors will be notified of this and advised of the amendments needed for the process to begin.
3. Analysis of Relevance and Academic Writing
The editorial team then reads the manuscript and determines if it meets the basic standards of academic writing and if it’s in line and relevant to the subject area of the journal. If the submission passes these checks, the process is continued. If it does not, the authors are contacted to specify why the manuscript is not suitable for the journal. The editors may suggest an alternative journal they feel would be better suited for the work or indicate that they would consider review if any improvements in academic writing are made. During this stage, the journal may also use software to detect any plagiarism in the manuscript and you will specifically be asked to confirm that the work has not been submitted elsewhere for review.
4. Review by the Editorial Committee
Once the editorial team determines that the manuscript aligns with the subject theme of the journal and meets its formal requirements, the team may follow one of two paths: (1) ‘in-house’ review of the manuscript with feedback for authors, followed by independent expert peer review or (2) immediate peer review by independent experts. The approach used here will vary between journals, however, the first approach is favourable as it avoids burdening a journals network of expert reviewers with having to assess ‘poor’ quality content.
5. First Blind Peer Review
Once the editorial committee has reviewed the article and endorsed its potential publication, the peer review process begins in the form of assessment of the work by independent experts blind to the details of the authors and their institutions (i.e. their review will not be influenced by knowing who did the work).
The number of experts reviewing each article can vary; a minimum of two expert peers must review the manuscript but more may be called upon if the subject is controversial or if there is significant disagreement between the recommendations of the first two reviewers. These experts are external to the editorial committee and may even be from different countries to that of the authors.
The editor sends to each peer reviewer (1) the manuscript with no reference to who the authors are, (2) guidance of the publication standards required from the journal and (3) a format in which the reviewer can detail their comments and opinion on whether the manuscript warrants publication. Reviewers are typically asked to complete their review within two weeks of their agreement to assess the work.
In the evaluation format, the reviewers are asked to:
(2) Provide comments detailing a general assessment of the manuscript including suggestions for improvements, constructive criticism and any other observations.
(3) Recommend the publication or not of the article, including the possibility of proposing publication if minor or sometimes major amendments are made to the manuscript (which may range from make edits in the writing or even performing further experimental work, for example).
In addition, the reviewers are asked if they are willing to evaluate a revised version of the manuscript by the authors, based on the comments from the reviewer, to continue the process until they consider the manuscript can be published.
6. Editorial Decision
When the editor receives all feedback from reviewers, he or she prepares a summary document that includes anonymised comments from the reviewers and any further comments from the editor. Based on all feedback, the editorial team decides whether to (1) invite the authors to revise the manuscript or (2) conclude that the manuscript is not suitable for publication and stop the review process.
This document and the editorial decision are then sent to the authors. If the authors are interested in sending a revised version to continue the evaluation process, the editor assigns a revision deadline based on the scale of the amendments that may need to be made. If the authors decide not to continue, the manuscript is removed from the journal’s database and the reviewers are informed that there will be no new versions to assess.
7. Second Peer Review
Upon receiving the revised version of the manuscript, the editor again sends it to the reviewers anonymously together with a summary document from the authors detailing the amendments they have made in the new version. Each reviewer receives the second version of the manuscript plus the assessment he had made to the first version to verify the authors took into account the reviewers’ suggestions. Based on this, each expert re-evaluates the article and indicates to the editor whether further adjustments are necessary or whether he or she considers that the article is suitable for publication.
8. Final Editorial Decision
Once the editor receives the second round of comments from the reviewers, if they agree that the manuscript can be published as it is, the authors are informed, and the editing process begins for publication.
If the reviewers consider that further adjustments to the manuscript are still necessary, the editor prepares a new document with the review comments and sends it to the authors, inviting them to send a newly revised manuscript. The review process continues until either the work is accepted for publication or the manuscript is withdrawn from review.
Upon acceptance and in preparation of publication, the accepted version of the peer reviewed manuscript is often made available online quickly, whilst print copies may take several months to become available depending on how often these are published by the journal.
Authors will be able to make the paper open access (for a fee) or for it to be added to the university library publication repository, accessible for free by members of that university only (and everyone else that has the subscription to the journal).