How to Respond to Peer Review and Communicate with Journal Editors
Give yourself the best chance to succeed!
Now that you’ve submitted your academic manuscript to a journal or publisher, it can be easy to think that you are finished with your research process. However, in many cases, this is only the start of a lengthy back-and-forth with editors and reviewers, with no guaranteed end result.
Remember– what you do after you complete your initial submission can be as important as your original research and writing for getting your work published. Therefore, to prepare for success, you should keep in mind what to expect from the process. Remember that every journal or editor has its own specific requirements, response time, and work methods: therefore, your experience may differ from our general overview.
Step 1 – Desk Review by the Journal Editor
In most cases, after your manuscript is submitted, it undergoes an initial review by one of the journal editors. The editor then has a few options:
- Return it for further revisions – If the editor notices what they deem to be a basic issue (e.g., the paper is not formatted according to the journal guidelines, or the language requires heavy editing), they may send it back to you for revision before considering whether to pass it along for review.
- Pass it on to reviewers for peer review – If the editor deems the article deserving of consideration, they will pass the manuscript on to reviewers in the field for peer review. While this is certainly an encouraging first step, it does not guarantee that the reviewers will come back with a favorable report. Some journals and publishers will allow you to suggest reviewers for your article. If this is the case, be sure to choose carefully to give yourself the best chance of receiving a positive review.
- Reject – If the editor decides that the article is not suitable for the journal, they may send you a rejection. You can choose to appeal if you think that a mistake has been made. But usually, the most sensible path is simply to move on and try to find another journal or publisher. In some cases, the editor might suggest alternative publication avenues that they think are more suitable. You may also wish to ask them for feedback about why the manuscript was rejected, so you can improve it before submitting it elsewhere.
If you don’t receive confirmation of your article’s submission within a week after submitting it, consider following up to ensure that it was actually received.
Step 2 – The Academic Peer Review Process
If your article is sent out for review, it will generally be sent to between 3-5 reviewers who will be asked to give feedback on the article and advise whether it is suitable for publication. This process will usually result in one of three scenarios:*
- Accepted with revisions
If the reviewers recommend publication, they may ask you to make minor corrections and revisions. Once these are completed, you can resubmit your article to the journal for further review.
- Revise and resubmit
The reviewers may recommend revisions they would like you to make to your manuscript. It then becomes your job to take a close look at the suggestions and determine whether you agree or disagree with them and whether implementing the suggestions is feasible given your current time availability and resources.
Even if you decide to implement the suggestions and make the requested changes, this is not a guarantee that the article will be accepted for publication. Commonly, your article will be sent back to the reviewers for a second review. At that point, they will assess whether the updated version should be accepted for publication.
If your article is (unfortunately) rejected, you can follow the instructions above in Section 1C.
- Differing reviews
Sometimes, reviewers’ opinions may differ, with some having a very positive impression and others offering harsh critique. In these cases, formulating a thorough and well-argued response becomes all the more critical to help you allay the concerns of the critical reviewers and reinforce the conclusions of the positive reviewers.
Step 3 – Assessing Different Types of Reviews and Follow-Up
In theory, the goal of peer review is to improve the manuscript, both conceptually and practically (e.g., language, referencing, organization). It is important to emphasize that you don’t have to accept and implement every suggestion offered by the reviewers. In fact, sometimes two reviews will contradict each other and you won’t be able to implement both suggestions. However, if you do disagree with a point made by a reviewer and decide not to implement their suggestion, it is important to justify (in a cordial way) this decision and fully explain your reasons.
If you agree with most of the review’s recommendations, it makes sense to incorporate the suggested changes as well as you can. Where things get tricky is when you disagree with many of the recommendations or feel that the reviewer didn’t properly understand your research to begin with (or seems unqualified to assess the material). In cases like these, you need to determine your likelihood of successfully conveying the complexity of your argument to these reviewers or the editor, and whether it is worth your time to do so. Take the time to reflect; ask yourself if part of the reviewer's lack of understanding resulted from the writing, presentation, or organization of your arguments.
What kinds of comments can you expect?
Reviewer comments can vary in style and substance, ranging from fundamental flaws they perceive in your research to an erroneous citation and everything in between. Often, reviewers will point out relevant scholarship they think you should cite or discuss and that isn’t currently mentioned. They may also comment if they think the research you quote is outdated and doesn’t reflect contemporary scholarship on a given topic.
Issues Relating to Language
One type of issue that can lead to frustration and confusion is a reviewer’s comment relating to language. In some cases, language-related comments are written individually by reviewers after they notice particular issues or errors in the English text. If you've already had your article edited professionally, but still receive this type of comment, there may indeed have been oversights in the original edit, or these issues may have resulted from further changes you made to the article yourself that introduced new errors prior to submission. Sometimes even a small number of grammatical errors can leave reviewers with a poor impression.
Often, journals will include a standard template recommendation to have the article edited by a native English speaker or professional editor before resubmitting, regardless of whether or not the manuscript has already undergone professional language editing. It is important to try and discern the nature of the language comment and whether it actually requires further attention. You can do this by noting if any specific examples from your article are listed, or if the advice is more generic, and by determining if the comment is left by the journal staff or the reviewers themselves. In some journals, staff will leave a note about editing for all papers, or at least for papers written by authors from non-English-speaking countries.
Finally, there are times where the reviewer is not a native English speaker and their assessment of the language is simply not accurate. If you notice English language errors in the review itself then it is worth pausing to think about whether the reviewer is the best judge of the quality of the writing.
Step 4 – How to Complete your Responses to Reviewers
It can be difficult to return to the research you worked on months (or even years) ago. Take the time to revisit your manuscript, read it again, and re-familiarize yourself with the material before responding. Sometimes, new research on the topic has appeared since your previous submission, and you need to take it into consideration and, if appropriate, make reference to it.
Along with the review, editors will often send instructions for how you should complete your revisions for the journal. In general, they will ask for changes to be made in the main manuscript itself using a different color or tracked changes, as well as a letter responding to the reviewer's comments. It is advisable to break down the review and respond to each point, to ensure that you address all of the issues and that your responses are clear and accessible to the reviewers. The letter is a great opportunity to “communicate” with the reviewers; be sure to give thorough, concrete answers that invite dialogue and show an openness on your part to receive criticism and learn from it.
It can be quite tempting to respond to reviewers immediately, especially if they have leveled serious criticism or attempted to identify flaws in your manuscript. However, it is generally advisable to take a few days after reading the review to digest it and consider a calm and balanced response. It is critical that your responses be specific and to-the-point, and not personal, even if you felt the original review was not constructive, or even mean-spirited.
Scholars who succeed tend to know how to embrace the positive parts of reviews and feedback that help them sharpen their arguments while rejecting feedback that they disagree with or deem irrelevant. Be sure to thank the reviewer at the outset of your response letter, as they most likely won’t be receiving remuneration for the work they are doing.
Step 5 – Waiting Forever for a Response from an Academic Journal
On average, it takes six months from the time you submit your manuscript until you receive a concrete decision (across all academic fields). Even if your article is accepted, it then takes an average of another six months before it is published. Many submissions will take far longer, and having a manuscript sit with a publisher for over a year is not uncommon. Therefore, we don’t recommend sitting by your computer and obsessively hitting refresh.
My recommendation? Put the article aside until you hear back, and move on to other research projects in the meantime. How can you do this? Consider always having several studies on your plate:
- One study in your mind that you are planning;
- Another study on which you are currently working;
- A third study you are in the middle of writing up;
- And, finally, the study that is sitting with the reviewers.
While this is an ideal you may not be able to reach, the idea is not to get stuck waiting for a response on one particular article.
If you don’t hear from a journal or publisher within a few months, it is reasonable to check in and ask for an update. Some journals are very good at communicating with authors and will let you know exactly at what stage of the process your review is, while others are less responsive. Many journals have digitized their processes and you can log in to your profile to view the status of your project. Keep in mind that because reviewers generally work voluntarily, they do not always make reviews their highest priority and may push them off due to more pressing demands.
Common Reasons Manuscripts are Rejected
Having your article rejected can be a difficult experience if you have invested hundreds (if not thousands) of hours, devoting considerable mental energy to conceptualizing, conducting, and writing the research.
Realize that 80% of article submissions are rejected (and that number seems to have risen as a result of the coronavirus pandemic), so you are in good company. One editor of a respected academic press shared with me that he recently turned down proposals from two Nobel Prize laureates! In addition, studies also show that submissions that are initially rejected are ultimately more successful (as measured by the impact factor of the articles in both categories) than those that are accepted after the first submission.
There are many reasons why your submission may have been rejected. Sometimes it is related to the research itself, while at other times, there are external factors affecting the decision-making process. In many cases, you will never know the real reason your article was rejected, but being aware of the varied considerations that journals take into account can help you accept their decision and move forward.
Here are some of the most common reasons journals have for rejecting an article:
- Critique relating to subject matter – Reviewers’ criticisms based on the subject matter, whether the arguments are plausible, whether the article converses with extant scholarship, and most importantly, whether it offers any new knowledge or insight.
- It doesn’t fit the aims and scope of the publication – The most common reason given for rejecting your article will be that it doesn’t fit the specific aims and scope, or area of interest, of the journal. Sometimes this response is really true, while other times it can seem like a ‘template answer’ sent on all submissions.
- The journal is already full – Journals may not tell you this, but sometimes they simply don’t have room in their current volume for more articles. The better the journal, the more submissions they receive and the harder it is to get accepted. If a journal only accepts 5-10% of submissions, it will inevitably reject plenty of excellent research that is otherwise commendable.
- Your article doesn’t fit the current trend or theme – Much like other publications, journals often choose articles that they consider relevant and of current interest. All journals have a financial component and the relevance or potential popularity of your manuscript can be a meaningful factor. In fact, many journals that publish online have started to closely follow the number of views and downloads of each article they publish.
What to Do if your Manuscript is Rejected
Having your article rejected can be a very difficult experience, especially for junior scholars who aren’t used to it. There is often a temptation to argue with the editor and explain why they are mistaken. Although in certain cases this may actually bear fruit, understand that there are often numerous other journals that could potentially be interested in your research.
Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself whether perhaps the article was rejected due to inherent issues with the research, or for any of a myriad of other reasons (some of which have been mentioned above).
Receiving a rejection is not the end of the road. It doesn’t mean that your manuscript isn’t valuable or won’t be accepted by a different journal or publisher. Continue plugging away and eventually you will find the right forum.
Preserving your Well-being throughout the Review Process
The review and publication process can be taxing for authors. Maintaining your well-being is important during this period. For many junior scholars, this is the first time experiencing an outright rejection of their ideas, which can be quite a shock. Try to join a community of scholars at similar points in their careers so that you can share advice, experiences, and even failures. Moreover, always remember that your research is a journey that will take you to many unexpected places. By embracing the process, you may discover new horizons and opportunities.
(* Note: I have not included a straight acceptance of the article. Of course, this could potentially happen, but it is extremely rare. In fact, if you do receive a direct acceptance without any feedback whatsoever, you may want to double-check that the forum you are submitting to is legitimate and not a predatory publisher.)Receive an individualized quote!