Ann E. Jeffers, Ph.D.

Professor | Author | Engineer

Demystifying the Editorial Process of Scientific Journals

The following contains my views on the publishing process for scientists and engineers submitting manuscripts to academic journals. My views are based on my experience serving as Co-Editor-in-Chief of Fire Safety Journal (Elsevier) from 2016-2018.

A pair of glasses on a book

Fresh out of my PhD, I received two very different decisions on two manuscripts from my dissertation: Paper 1 was accepted with minor revisions while Paper 2 was flat out rejected. I was totally confused. How could one paper be accepted and the other not given even an option for major revision?

Several years later (once I had achieved tenure and was promoted to associate professor), I was invited to serve as co-editor-in-chief of the journal I had been rejected from previously. Suddenly, I was on the other side, handling the reviews and making decisions on what got published and what didn’t. At that point, I had a much broader view of my discipline, and I had a good sense of what made a paper publishable. These are the lessons I learned along my journey. 

Know Your Audience

Before you submit a manuscript, you should know your discipline(s) as well as the journals that publish the type of paper you are submitting. If you work at the interface between two or more fields (as I do), this can be especially tricky. 

When I submitted Paper 2, I didn’t fully understand my audience. I thought because the paper had “fire” in the title, fire safety engineers would automatically be interested. But the paper lacked novelty from the perspective of fire safety engineers. If I had submitted Paper 2 to a structural engineering journal instead, I suspect the contributions may have been appreciated more and perhaps I would have had more success publishing the paper.

Instead of giving up, I decided to rewrite the paper for the fire safety engineering community. This meant I had to redo the analysis, come up with new results and conclusions, and rewrite the whole paper. But it paid off in the end. I submitted the new paper to the journal that previously rejected me, and it was accepted with minor revisions after a single round of reviews.

When you work at the interface of two or more disciplines, it can be especially tricky to understand the nuances of each discipline. The best ways to get to know your audience are to: 1.) read extensively in your field(s), and 2.) go to conferences that reach each respective audience. Pay attention to how each field communicates, what topics are most relevant, and who the key players are. You can take this even further by becoming an active member of each community by volunteering to serve on committees, review papers, and so on. Getting to know others in your field can only help your career and make your research stronger. 

The Desk Reject

When you submit a manuscript, it goes to the editor. The editor skims the manuscript to check the quality of writing, make sure the paper meets journal’s standards, and verify the paper fits within the journal’s scope. If a paper does not meet these criteria, it is rejected without review, which is called a desk reject. In my experience, about half of the papers submitted to a journal fall in this category.

A desk reject does not necessarily mean there isn’t value to the manuscript. In a lot of cases, the paper is a poor fit for the journal and would be better suited for a different journal. In other cases, the manuscript would benefit from editing for grammar and punctuation (this is especially true for international scholars whose native language is not English). Occasionally, a paper may be desk rejected for poor science. To avoid a desk reject, you should make sure your manuscript is polished (perhaps even professionally edited for grammar and punctuation) and make sure the paper fits the scope of the journal. If the editor points out flaws in the manuscript at the time of rejection, be sure to address them before submitting to another journal. 

Who Are the Reviewers?

Reviewer 2 meme

If you make it past the editor, your manuscript will likely be passed along to an associate editor. The associate editor has expertise in your field of study and will select the reviewers who will read your manuscript and give a recommendation on whether the manuscript should be published. 

The review process is a black box from the author’s perspective. You submit a manuscript, forget about it, and then weeks or months (or even years) later, you get an editor’s decision supported by a few paragraphs (if you are lucky) of text from these anonymous reviewers. The process is cold, arbitrary, and often leaves you wondering if the reviewer even read the same paper you submitted.

From the editor’s perspective, the hardest part of the job is finding quality reviewers. The ideal reviewer:

  1. Has the relevant expertise
  2. Knows how to do a thorough job and write a quality review
  3. Will return their review quickly
  4. Has the bandwidth to review one more paper

That’s a tall order. Don’t get me wrong, there are reviewers out there who meet criteria 1-3 (these people are AMAZING) but they are often in high demand, meaning that they aren’t always available. 

So what’s an editor to do? They may be forced to send out invitations to people who fall short of these criteria. Maybe the reviewer doesn’t work in the exact same field but has enough knowledge that they could provide a review. Maybe the reviewer is known to do quality reviews but takes more time. Maybe the editor takes a gamble on a fresh Ph.D. to serve as a reviewer. All of these options open up opportunities for flaws in the peer review process. 

Note that biases exist, and it is hard to prevent them in the peer-review process. When an author submits a manuscript, they have the option to specify certain people they don’t want as reviewers. However, sometimes authors (or reviewers) don’t make conflicts of interest known, or the reviewer has a hidden bias against the author’s work that is only apparent after the reviewer submits their review. In addition, reviewers may hold unconscious bias against women, ethnic and racial minorities, etc. Double-blind peer review helps to reduce bias, but in small fields it is often easy for a reviewer to determine the author’s identity. 

The Reviews and What They Mean

When the paper is reviewed, the reviewer can choose to recommend it be accepted as is, accepted with minor revision, require major revisions, or reject the paper. These categories are open to the reviewers’ interpretation.

When the reviewer recommends the paper be accepted as is (extremely rare) or with minor revisions, this means the reviewer found the paper well-written, the science sound, and the contribution meaningful to the journal’s audience. You can pat yourself on the back if your paper falls in this category. 

When the reviewer recommends your paper be resubmitted with major revisions, your paper likely needs some work. Perhaps there are additional tests or analyses that need to be completed to support the findings in the paper. Maybe the reviewer has questions about the methodology. Perhaps there are sections of your paper that are confusing to the reviewer. Maybe the reviewer has serious concerns about the paper and wants to give you an opportunity to address them. Regardless of the reason, your revised manuscript should incorporate substantial changes (more on this later). 

If the reviewer recommends the paper be rejected, they may have found your paper poorly written, flawed in the science, failing to address an important topic, or falling outside the journal’s scope. If a reviewer recommends a rejection, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the paper will be rejected by the journal. Keep in mind that the final decision lies with the editor.

What Drives the Editor’s Decision?

The editor solicits a minimum of two reviews for a paper. When these reviews come in, the editor reads the reviewers’ comments and recommendations and decides on a course of action. 

If the reviewers are in agreement, the path forward may be obvious for the editor. In most cases though, the reviewers have differing opinions on the paper. After all, the two reviewers bring two different skill sets to the review (e.g., one may look more closely at the research methodology, whereas the other may focus on the quality of writing and presentation of results). However, authors tend to be perplexed when they receive conflicting viewpoints. How can two reviewers read the same paper and one reviewer says “accept” and the other says “reject?” This type of situation is actually more common than people think. 

I can’t speak for all editors, but I can tell you how I determine my decisions. When I receive conflicting reviews as an editor, I tend to give the authors the benefit of the doubt. If the paper appears to have merits, I request a major revision and allow the authors to address the comments raised by the reviewers. If the decision isn’t clear, I may seek a third (or even fourth) review. Many times, the additional reviews are requested from members of the editorial board. Lastly, if one or more reviewers highlight a fundamental flaw in the work, if the paper is out of the journal’s scope, or the quality of the paper is poor, I may reject it. Note that the editor’s decision is also somewhat subjective, but I suspect  that most editors operate with fairness and integrity as guiding principles. 

What To Do If Your Paper Needs Revisions

If your paper needs major revisions, be prepared to do a lot of work. When you resubmit your manuscript, you will need to provide a response to reviewers’ comments. What I do is copy the comments into a document and address them point-by-point. In your response, you should state what you’ve changed in the manuscript or provide a suitable rebuttal for why you choose not to change the manuscript in light of the comments. Be careful with the latter. When an editor requests major revisions, they expect you to revise your manuscript, not merely state why you disagree with the reviewer. Failing to adequately respond to reviewers’ comments is one sure way to get your paper rejected. 

The editor may make a decision based on your response, or they may send it for another round of reviews. Sometimes the second set of reviews is done by the people who did the initial review. Sometimes the editor will request new reviewers. When I edit a paper, I ask the original reviewers to read the revised paper unless they rejected the original manuscript. After the revised submission has been okayed by the reviewers and/or the editor, it is ready for production. In rare cases, a paper may need a third (or even fourth) round of reviews.

What To Do If Your Paper is Rejected

Rejection is hard to swallow, but keep in mind the reasons your paper was rejected. Could your manuscript benefit from editing for grammar and punctuation? Does your paper meet the journal’s standards? Does this particular journal reach the right audience for your work?  Is the science sound? Did you do a proper literature review? Address these shortcomings and then consider submitting to a different journal. 

Conclusions

Publishing scientific papers is hard work. Not only do you have to do the research, but you have to present your findings in a way that will reach the intended audience. The review process may seem like a black box, but after reading this article, hopefully you know a little more about the process. Lastly, keep in mind that editors and reviewers are human, and the peer-review process is not completely foolproof. If you face rejection, don’t take it personally. Dust your manuscript off, revise it to the best of your ability, and submit it to another  journal. Also remember that even the best scientists face rejection on occasion.

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