Written by Joanna Kimmerly-Smith
What is peer review?
Having fellow experts within your field evaluate your work before publication is not just a formality; it's an essential part of the academic world.
According to Elsevier, a major academic publisher, "Peer review helps validate research, establish a method by which it can be evaluated, and increase networking possibilities within research communities." Peer-reviewed articles are used in education, for future research, and in current practice, so it's important that they be accurate.
There are many different types of peer review, but the most common are single blind, in which reviewers remain anonymous; double blind, in which authors and reviewers are anonymous; and open reviews, in which the identities of both authors and reviewers are known. Blind reviews are meant to eliminate any possible bias, while open reviews are meant to encourage meaningful author–reviewer feedback.
Regardless of the method used, peer review is meant to ensure that valid, significant, and original work is given a fair chance at publication, without petty disagreements blocking academic breakthroughs.
What is the process?
The peer review process involves an exchange between the journal editor and the team of reviewers—referees who are experts in your field. The reviewers read your article to evaluate its scientific validity, originality, and research significance. They will then make one of the following recommendations:
- Unconditional acceptance: No changes are required before publication.
- Conditional acceptance (Minor Revisions Required): Minor revisions are required before publication.
- Conditional acceptance (Major Revisions Required): Major revisions are required, but the journal will still publish the article.
- Conditional rejection: The journal will reconsider publishing the article only after it is revised and resubmitted for another round of peer review.
- Outright rejection: The journal will not reconsider publishing the article, even after substantial revisions.
If you've already submitted your article to a journal and it's been accepted unconditionally, that's fantastic—and quite rare. The best you can usually hope for is conditional acceptance. However, many academics are faced with the reality of rejection.
What if my article is rejected?
There are several common reasons for rejection, which fall into two broad categories: technical issues and content issues. Let's take a look at some of the issues that may crop up in your peer review.
- The reviewer detected plagiarism in the article. This is a serious academic offense, but you may not have plagiarized intentionally (e.g., it may be the result of poor documentation or paraphrasing). If that's the case, the reviewers may allow you the chance to resubmit after you cite your sources properly and/or add missing citation information.
- The article is currently being reviewed by another journal. Submitting your paper to multiple journals simultaneously is not allowed. Refusing to wait and see whether you are accepted at your target journal is an academic faux pas; not only are your reviewers volunteering their personal time to look at your article, but also the journal editors are preparing your article for publication (and copyright). Neither the reviewers nor the editors would like it if you announced that you'd chosen another publisher after you were accepted.
- Formal components or sections (e.g., title, references) are missing. Most journals include an author checklist for the required components.
- The word count is too high or too low. Again, be sure to check the author guidelines regarding the length of the abstract, body, and references.
- There are English language issues. Most publishers expect your writing to adhere to high standards (i.e., for grammar, style, and clarity). If these standards are unmet, you will likely get rejected—even if your research is good.
- The figures and/or tables are of poor quality. Be sure that your images and graphics are clear, legible, and comply with the journal's formatting requirements.
- There are other formatting problems. Aside from following the journal's guidelines for authors, be sure to consult the appropriate editing manual and/or style guide for your subject area.
- The article is outside the scope and/or research interests of the journal. In this instance, it's best to resubmit to another journal, though you may want to take the reviewers' advice (if any) into consideration beforehand.
- The author(s) failed to consider other relevant studies in the area of research. Your reviewers may recommend (or ask you to find) other relevant studies to further support and/or justify your research claims. If your findings contradict those of related studies in the literature, you must explain this discrepancy. If you do not, it either looks like you cannot validate your results or you are not familiar with current research (both of which are bad!).
- The research aim was not established or not met. If your scope was too broad, it's possible that the article lacks a clear, defined purpose. If your scope was too narrow, the significance of your research may be lost amid the broader scope of research on the subject. Your reviewers may suggest refining your research aim or providing greater context to your research with a closer look at other literature in the field.
- The research was incomplete. Depending on your subject area, the reviewers may suggest that you publish only after you have completed your experiments.
- The procedures, methods, and/or data analysis were poorly recorded, non-standard, and/or incorrect. Reviewers will be looking for statistically valid research that is replicable, follows the conventions for presenting data within the field, and has a clear method of comparison, such as a control group.
- The conclusions were illogical or unfounded. This could be due to missing research/data or poor language skills (i.e., unintentionally contradictory language).
- Overall, the research findings were not significant. If the reviewer feels that your research adds nothing new to the literature, your article may not be deemed worthy of publication.
Unless there are serious issues with the content (e.g., your article is not appropriate for the journal), you will likely want to revise your article (and resubmit it, if necessary) if you received a conditional acceptance or rejection.
How do I respond to reviewers?
When you are in the process of publishing an article, you are taking an active role in scientific communication. This requires listening to others' points of view carefully and considerately. Your reviewers are likely authors, too, so they have been in your position. They are not your enemies, but your guides and mentors toward better writing and more accurate communication of your research to the world at large.
Through your response to the reviewers, you are entering a constructive dialogue that, hopefully, will benefit the entire scientific community. It may be difficult to take criticism, especially for work that you've devoted months or years to developing. However, you must be able to accept negative feedback if you hope to improve as an author and researcher.
Hywel C. Williams addresses this in the excellent article "How to Reply to Referees' Comments when Submitting Manuscripts for Publication," which outlines three "golden rules" for responding to your reviewers' comments:
- Answer completely.
- Answer politely.
- Answer with evidence.
Williams also offers advice on other potential issues that might arise when responding to reviewers, such as reviewers with conflicting points of view, reviewers who are wrong, rudeness from your reviewer, and requests for word count reduction.
For now, let's outline the best overall approach to your peer review response.
1. Remain objective in your response.
When the time comes to respond to your reviewers, don't let your emotions cloud your judgment or poison your relationship with the people who need to approve your work for publication. Here are a few tips:
- Wait a day or two before you respond. If you feel angry, upset, or disappointed that your article was rejected (with the option to revise and resubmit), don't instantly demand another review or appeal the rejection. Waiting will help you to assess the reviewers' comments more objectively.
- Read through your reviewers' comments carefully. It's easy to miss important pointers if you are too angry to read the comments objectively. Take a moment to go through each comment and focus on what needs to be improved, step by step.
- Reassess the (possible) shortcomings of your article. Were the reviewers right in their assessments? If they overlooked something, the writing may have been unclear. What might they have misunderstood? Did you forget to mention any significant details in your research?
2. See weakness as an opportunity to improve.
Now that you've calmly assessed what needs to be done, resist the temptation to be defensive in your response. If the reviewers pointed out errors in your writing—whether technical or content-related—see this as an opportunity. What matters most isn't your pride; it's the chance to revise and resubmit your manuscript for publication.
Treat the reviewers' comments as free advice that will allow you to strengthen the content and presentation of your research. Rather than reacting badly to comments that seem nitpicky or irrelevant, pay attention to detailed reviews. Remember that receiving comments from a reviewer is actually a compliment, as it means the reviewer has deemed your work worthy enough to invest effort into helping you improve it.
One way to implement these changes is to seek outside help. After addressing the content-related changes suggested by the reviewer, you can choose an editing service to ensure you haven't introduced additional errors and that you have been clear and polite when responding to reviewers.
3. Acknowledge all the reviewers' comments.
When responding to reviewers, it is essential that you acknowledge and address all the reviewers' comments—even the positive ones! This lets your reviewer know that you read their feedback carefully and that you value it enough to respond.
It can help to break down the comments into individual components or tasks. Williams recommends addressing each component "in sequence, however irritating or vague they may appear to you. Number them, and repeat them in your cover letter using the headings such as 'Reviewer 1,' then 'Comment 1,' followed by 'Response.'" You can quote the reviewer directly or paraphrase the comments in your own words.
Another strategy is to categorize your reviewers' comments in table form. Whether the reviewers' original comments are in paragraph or point form, you can organize their advice as follows:
Page Number(s) of Revision(s)
This section contains grammatical errors.
Thank you for drawing our attention to these errors. They have been corrected.
Whatever method you choose, breaking down the reviewers' comments and responding to each in its turn makes your responses easy to follow. Both the reviewers and the journal editor will appreciate your careful consideration of their review.
4. Be polite and thorough in your response.
Politeness goes a long way in any sort of communication, but being polite doesn't mean you can't disagree with your reviewer. If you have received comments you disagree with, simply acknowledge the point that was made and offer a detailed explanation of your position. However, it's imperative to include evidence and citations to support your position.
There's a difference between defending your argument and being defensive. The former means that you are prepared to back up your research with objective facts and data, while the latter means that you are taking a hostile, combative attitude toward your reviewer.
Even if you feel that your reviewer has been rude to you, you are far less likely to receive a favorable outcome if you return fire with fire. Taking a calm, polite approach will improve your chances for publication.
As the UK charity Sense about Science puts it, "Peer review is an essential dividing line for judging what is scientific and what is speculation and opinion."
Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes and an unbiased opinion to really assess the quality of your research. That's why it's a good idea to use a professional editing service, such as Scribendi, to prepare your article before initial submission and to help you through the process of responding to your reviewers.
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Joanna's passion for English literature (proven by her M.A. thesis on Jane Austen) is matched by her passion to help others with their writing (shown by her role as an in-house editor with Scribendi). She enjoys lively discussions about plot, character, and nerdy TV shows with her husband, and she loves singing almost as much as she loves reading. Isn't music another language after all?