How to... survive peer review and revise your paper Part: 4

How to... survive peer review and revise your paper

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What is the peer review process?

The peer review process is an independent quality control procedure for articles submitted to journals. Because it is so difficult for authors to be objective about their own writing, they benefit greatly from having someone else read and comment upon their work. Peer review is vital for enhancing the quality, credibility and acceptability of published research and practice papers.

The editor's role

At the head of this quality control mechanism is the editor. It is the editor's responsibility to maintain high editorial standards and to ensure that the journal fulfils its stated mission aims. The journal's aims and objectives, together with guidelines for authors, are generally found on both the inside rear cover of the journal and on the journal's home page on the Web.

The editor decides if a submitted paper is suitable for inclusion and falls within the journal's remit. If the article is peripheral to the journal's area of interest then it will be either rejected immediately or the editor will ask the author to resubmit the paper after it has been revised. If a paper is rejected outright, the editor often suggests that the author submits the paper to a more appropriate journal.

The review

If the editor decides that an article is suitable then it will enter the peer review process. For most journals this means double-blind peer review. The editor selects usually two (but sometimes as many as four) independent reviewers who research or practise in the same area as the author and are subject specialists. Sometimes the reviewers are members of the editorial advisory board or the editorial review board and other times the editor will use ad hoc reviewers from his or her personal network. This is occasionally necessary for a very specialized subject area or because the regular reviewers are too busy.

In the double-blind process all information on the paper which identifies the author is removed and the paper is coded and sent to the reviewers. The reviewers then judge the paper and return it to the eEditor. The criteria used for judging a paper are discussed later in this article. The Editor then passes comments from the reviewers back to the author, particularly when rejection or revision is advised. In theory, neither the author nor the reviewers know each other's identity, thus ensuring impartiality. This is not always possible, especially if the subject area does not support a large community. It is quite possible that the reviewer will be able to guess the origin of a paper by its content.

The outcomes

After an article has been reviewed, it is then in one of three states; rejected, accepted, or returned for revision with the suggestion that the author makes amendments to the article which might meet the reviewers' satisfaction.

If the reviewers ask for an article to be revised, the author has the opportunity to amend the article and resubmit it for review. At this second review stage, the reviewers decide if the alterations the author has made have taken into account all the points raised in the first review. Accordingly, the paper will be finally accepted or rejected.

If an author is unhappy with any stage of the review process, he or she can withdraw the paper and submit it to a different journal.

Statistics for each stage of the review process will differ over the spectrum of journals. For example the British Medical Journal has rejection rates of over 90 per cent.

What are the criteria by which a paper is judged?

The criteria that an editor insists on for his or her journal will vary according to the journal, but it is possible to distil those factors that are commonly used as benchmarks. They are as follows:

  • Does the article add to what is already known?
  • Is the article demonstrably related to what has been previously written?
  • Are the arguments employed valid in terms of the body of knowledge?
  • Is the article easy to read?
  • Do the arguments flow logically?
  • Are the conclusions strong?

Some editors use a pro forma which directs the reviewer to these questions. There are normally boxes to tick and an area for reviewers to make lengthier comments and hence go into greater depth.

An obvious recommendation to a prospective author is to consider how to meet the above criteria before starting to write a paper. This should greatly increase the chance of having the paper accepted.

Advantages and disadvantages of the peer review process

The peer review process is used to guarantee quality and has survived for a number of centuries now. For a system to last that long, it must contain a number of advantages. However, it does have a number of distinct disadvantages too.

Advantages

  • refereeing allows an author to claim priority to an idea
  • validation of the authors work
  • protection from plagiarism
  • assurance of authenticity
  • it may support a job or funding application or the seeking of promotion
  • quality assurance
  • improves scholarship by ensuring relevant literature is cited
  • work receives added value by the process of revision.

Disadvantages

  • some reviewers find it difficult to be truly impartial and thus allow their own opinions to show through their critiquing of an article
  • reviewers are human and can make factually incorrect judgements
  • reviewers may often disagree on the merits of the same paper
  • anonymity of reviewers means that the author has little recourse
  • time: the major delay in publications is often the peer review process. Normally a reviewer will turn a paper around within a month, but it is often three months and in worst cases has been known to be as much as six months to a year.

Other problems with the peer review process are that referees are, like most people, very busy with work and other commitments and these must come before refereeing, which is, almost always, an unpaid task. Although most do the job readily (it is considered a duty and a service to the academic community), they are not always able to donate the time and consideration that an article may need. This can result in authors only receiving very brief, unenlightening comments, if any at all, on a paper they have submitted, especially if the paper is accepted without revision. This may make it difficult to get meaningful feedback on articles; for example about how authors can continue to improve their writing technique and research rigour or direction.

Strategies for success at peer review

The action learning set

As far as the author is concerned, the conventional peer review process for journals comes a bit late in the day. The research has been done, the conclusions drawn and pen (or ribbon, or toner) put to paper. As any practitioner in the total quality field will agree, trying to build in quality at the end of the production process is far too late. The obvious answer is to consider the quality aspect of the paper before starting to write. One method for achieving the desired outcome is to form an action learning set at your workplace. This has been described in greater detail by Robert Brown in a 1994 special issue of the Literati Newsline, but I will attempt to summarize his recommendations. The approach is of particular value to inexperienced authors or when a major piece of research is to be written up (where several papers may be in prospect).

The best size for an action learning set is five people. The basic constitution is a set adviseor, preferably with plenty of experience as an author (and the trauma that involves), and four other members. The key to reviewing and, therefore, writing manuscripts is to make the most important things explicit. To achieve this, Brown recommends that authors write answers to the following eight questions and that these answers be discussed at meetings of the set:

  • Who are the intended readers? (list three to five of them by name)
  • What did you do? (limit 50 words)
  • Why did you do it? (limit 50 words)
  • What happened? (limit 50 words)
  • What do the results mean in theory? (limit 50 words)
  • What do the results mean in practice? (limit 50 words)
  • What is the key benefit for your readers? (limit 25 words)
  • What remains unresolved? (limit 50 words)

The most important question to be answered "what is the benefit to the reader" and care must be taken not to be distracted from this. Many authors concentrate on the "what I did" and "what I found" aspects of the paper at the expense of selling the paper to the reader. To avoid this trap in the action learning set, it is best if the members of the set do not work in the same department and are educated laymen rather than subject specialists.

Action learning, when operating at its best, should provide, in the words of Robert Brown, "a supportive, reflective environment in which authors can sort out just what it is that they want to say in an article and how best to frame their thoughts so that the readers cannot fail to grasp them".

Pre-print distribution

Entirely complementary to the action learning set, and a strategy that many authors already use, is the circulation of pre-prints. Pre-prints are the (almost) finished article. Rather than sending your article directly to a journal, it is best to first circulate it to other subject specialists and to ask them for their opinion. At the lowest level this can be done within your department at your workplace, but it can also be done by sending the article to colleagues in your network.

If you are new to the article writing business, you may not have a big enough personal network to do this. In this case, it may be necessary to resort to cold calling: sending the article (and a covering letter explaining why you have sent the article) to people you have never met before, but whose work you have read or even cited. They may return the article without reading it, but most people are flattered to be asked and are more than happy to help.

Another option available to authors is the Internet. There are now many special interest groups which can be used to preview and discuss your work. These groups can be found by using the major search engines such as the Alta Vista, Lycos and Yahoo services.

There is a final method of having your paper reviewed using the electronic media. There are now a number of electronic pre-print archives. At the moment these are predominantly in the physical science field, but this is changing all the time as awareness of these services is increasing. It is possible to post a paper to these archives where they will be stored and where other researchers can ask for the paper to be sent to them.

Dissenting voices

In all this discussion about how to succeed at the peer review process, the impression may have been given that the case for the peer review process is sewn up and that there is no alternative to this quality control method. This is not entirely true. Many people are unhappy with peer review, as they equate it with censorship. They state that there are many instances where an important piece of work has been suppressed because the established figures within the field have failed to approve the content. They argue that with the new media, such as electronic archives, it is possible for all material to be published and for subsequent readers to leave their comments stored with the original article: this is known as open peer review.

Peer review at Emerald

Emerald supports the use of the peer review process for all its journals targeted at the academic market and constantly strives to maintain rigorously high Editorial standards in all its journals, whether they are highly academic or professional journals for practitioners. To this end, Emerald continues to produce materials that will be of help to prospective authors and Editors.

Conclusion

The message to all authors is to consider quality in your written work at all stages of the production process, from before the paper is written right up until when it is finally submitted to a journal. Use the criteria and benchmarks mentioned in this article as your guide. Finally, never be discouraged. Many papers that have been rejected by one journal following peer review, have been submitted and accepted in another, sometimes without revision; and many of these have then later been recognised as being truly important contributions in their field.