Eight lessons for how to make it through the peer-review: an editor perspective

9th January 2023

Author: Professor Harm-Jan Steenhuis College of Business, Hawaii Pacific University, USA.

Publishing peer-reviewed journal articles is part of life for academics.

Some insights will be shared from an editor's perspective but please note that not all journals are equal and variations exist.

Lesson one: journals are there for readers

A major misunderstanding occurs when authors think that journals are simply there to publish their article. In order to be successful in the publishing business it is necessary to have readers. An article should be able to attract readers.

Lesson two: the contribution

Attractiveness is based on several things, such as a good topic, solid methodology, and the contribution. Authors tend to think that their work contributes something new to the literature, but this is frequently not the case. It is important that an author demonstrates weaknesses or conflicts in current theory through an in-depth analysis of the literature and leading to a justification of the study. After presenting results there should be a discussion that clearly communicates what is new and different about this piece of research, while also explaining what this means for theory and, as a result, for practicing managers.

Lesson three: select the journal before writing

For many submissions it is clear that the authors first wrote something and then start searching for a journal. It is better to flip this process: first pick a journal, then start writing. The selection of the journal should be based on understanding what the journal is about. Read at least the most recent couple of issues. Analyze articles to determine common patterns such as length overall, typical structure and formatting, typical number of references etc. A sign that your article may not be a good fit is if there are no references to the journal you’ve submitted to because this may indicate that the topic does not fall inside the scope (but do not include references just to impress an editor, all references must be relevant to the article).

Lesson four: use a professional copy-editor

If there are many language issues then this is going to distract from the actual content. Professional services can help and successful authors use them. The use of these services might explain why they are successful. Pay especially attention to the abstract. The abstract is sent along with the invitation for a reviewer. Poor language in the abstract means that many potential reviewers will decline the review. At best this prolongs the entire process.

Lesson five: attach a cover letter to the initial submission

Explain what the manuscript is about, why it fits with the journal, and what it contributes to theory. It will provide the editor with a quick overview of the study and help the submitter to think about key parts of the study and how to communicate this.

Lesson six: receiving a revision is good news

Manuscripts on average take two revision rounds and never get immediately accepted. For my own journal in 2020 a large percentage of submissions were desk rejected because they did not meet basic criteria like those listed in the lessons above, and more received a reject decision after the first round of review due to methodology issues, no clear contribution, or a range of issues. After a revision decision, the percentage of rejections decreases significantly and this will be largely due to a lack of sufficient improvement in line with reviewer feedback.

Lesson seven: respond to reviewer comment

A key part of a revision is to provide a detailed response. This should be part of the new manuscript and at the beginning of the document so that it is the first thing reviewers see. The response is part of the (anonymous) dialogue that takes place between reviewer and author. Reviewers evaluate a manuscript and provide improvement suggestions. Their communication may sometimes come across as harsh and difficult to swallow but keep in mind that reviewers generally spend considerable time and want to see what authors did with the advice. Authors do not have to agree with what a reviewer says. If there is disagreement, then this needs to be justified. Keep in mind that reviewers provide a recommendation but the editorial office makes the final decision. Authors should address all of the comments. A reviewer may provide ten comments but it is often not explicitly communicated which of these are the most crucial to deal with. If an author only deals with eight of these comments, then the other two might actually have been the most important leading to a poor second review recommendation. Also, if comments are ignored, it tends to be disappointing for reviewers which may lead to a higher probability of a negative follow-up recommendation. A major revision should not be underestimated. It means that major changes are required.

Lesson eight: become a reviewer

Experiencing the reviewer side can help improve writing. It can also be insightful to see how other reviewers evaluated a manuscript and compare this with your own which can help ‘calibrate’ reviewing standards which in turn can help to improve writing standards.

About the author

Professor Harm-Jan Steenhuis is Associate Dean and Professor of Management, International Business at the College of Business, Hawaii Pacific University. He is Editor in Chief of the Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management.