How to navigate the peer review publishing process
When an author submits a manuscript to a scholarly journal, the manuscript will face one of three basic responses: accept, reject, or revise and resubmit. Samantha Elliott, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education (JMBE), and Jeffrey Arnett, editor of the Journal of Adolescent Research, offer the following information to guide you through the different responses you may receive from editors.
Accept/Accept with Minor Modifications
Manuscripts that fall into this category are exceptionally strong papers that received glowing peer reviews, and the only modifications needed might include clarification on certain points, or formatting issues specific to the journal. While this is every academic writer’s dream response, it is a very rare occurrence. If this happens to you, Elliott recommends that you celebrate, and then take a good look at the feedback you received to find out what impressed your reviewers. You can use this feedback to help shape future manuscripts.
Elliott also suggests that you take the time to carefully read through your accepted manuscript to make sure that no typos or other errors made it past the editor and copyeditors. “Because you have seen the manuscript so often and the copyeditor usually wants a quick turnaround, it can be tempting to skim over the content,” Elliott said. “Don’t! There is nothing worse than opening your published paper to see a glaring error.”
There are two possible timelines for rejection of a paper. A paper may be rejected after the peer review process, or it may be rejected by the editor before it leaves his or her desk. Arnett reports that many editors are starting to issue these “desk rejections” before sending a paper through the peer review process in order to save the author, the editor, and the reviewers valuable time: “I receive 250 manuscripts a year and can only publish 30,” Arnett said, “so I do desk rejections in order to make things manageable and avoid exhausting reviewers. It’s also in the interest of authors because as an author, I would much rather receive a rejection after one month than after four to five months. For young scholars especially, what is really disappointing about a rejection is not just the work that has gone into the paper, but also the loss of time, and that can really hurt when you need to publish to get a job or get tenure.”
Papers get rejected for two major reasons. The first is that it doesn’t match the scope or the mission of the journal. To avoid this pitfall, read the journal’s mission statement carefully. If you’re still not sure whether or not your paper would be a good fit, Elliott recommends sending an email to the editor that briefly describes your paper and ask him or her if your study sounds like a match for the journal. If your paper is rejected because of poor fit, do more detailed research to find a journal with a mission statement that your paper supports.
The second reason for a rejection is related to the content of the paper. It could be that your findings are not novel or interesting enough for a particular journal, in which case you can try submitting to a slightly less prestigious or competitive journal. Another reason for rejection is that the editor or reviewers have found a major flaw in the methodology or design of your study. If this is the case, you should examine these flaws for yourself to determine if you have simply miscommunicated a key point, if there is an aspect of your study that can be easily redone to address the problem, or if it truly is a fatal flaw and the study should be abandoned.
If you disagree with reviewers about the flaws in your study, you can politely appeal the rejection and justify the choices you made in designing your study, or you can revise your paper to incorporate—or more clearly explain—these justifications and resubmit elsewhere. However, Arnett advises that you accept the flaws as fatal if you continue to receive the same negative feedback from reviewers or editors at other journals.
Having your work be rejected from your journal of choice can be discouraging, but try to maintain a positive attitude. Elliott recommends putting the rejection letter away after an initial read, and then rereading it a few days later with a cool head. When you revisit the response letter and your paper, focus on the entire publishing process as a learning process and an opportunity for professional growth: “Editors and reviewers are teachers telling you what you did well and what needs to be improved,” said Arnett. “If you are rejected, the healthy, constructive response is to ask yourself, ‘How can I make this better? How can I get better as a researcher and scientist?'”
Revise and Resubmit
The revise and resubmit response means that your paper has merit, but some changes need to be made to the manuscript before the journal will consider accepting it. A revise and resubmit response is the stepping stone to acceptance for most published articles, but it can involve some serious work to meet the reviewer’s expectations. After receiving a revise and resubmit response, Elliott recommends evaluating the problems outlined by the reviewers, and deciding whether or not you want to spend the time and energy to make the required changes, or if you’d rather submit your manuscript elsewhere (perhaps after incorporating the suggestions you deem most helpful).
If you decide to make the required changes and resubmit, you will need to submit a letter that outlines the changes you made along with your revised manuscript. To keep track of the changes you have made, both Arnett and Elliott recommend writing your response letter as you make revisions to your paper. “I open up a Word document and copy and paste all reviewer comments into one sheet, which will be my response letter,” Elliott said. “I work down, comment by comment, starting with the first comment from Reviewer #1. I address that portion of my manuscript, and then write my response to the reviewer beneath his or her comment. Some things I will fix, some things I will explain better, some things I will respectfully argue and justify why I kept my manuscript the way it was. If there is overlap in the comments from different reviewers, I will say ‘See comment X from Reviewer Y’ beneath a comment I have already addressed in the letter.”
The good news about the revise and resubmit response is that both Arnett and Elliott said that a large portion of the papers that receive a revise and resubmit response get published: “I do a pretty stiff cut on the desk rejections,” Arnett said. “I won’t send a paper out for review unless it has a good chance of getting published. At least half of the papers that get sent out for review fall in the revise and resubmit category, and half of those will get published.” Elliott reported that, among unsolicited manuscripts submitted to the JMBE from 2010 to 2013, an average of 71% of the papers that received a revise and resubmit response were eventually accepted for publication.