Writing for Publication: Dealing with Peer Review

This article is based on a presentation given at UNL on September 4, 2014, by Professor Denise Cuthbert, Dean of the School of Graduate Research at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. You may also be interested in two companion articles from the same presentation:

Writing for Publication: Finding the Right Journal
How to Write a Journal Abstract: How and when to write the abstract for your journal article.

After months (maybe even years!) of work on an article, you send it off to a peer-reviewed journal. And then you wait.

The editor of the journal sends your manuscript to a number of other researchers in your field for peer review. The length of the review period depends on the journal and your reviewers, but you can expect to wait at least a few months. The reviewers' feedback, combined with their recommendations about whether your article should be published by the journal, is reviewed by the editor and then sent back to you. It's most likely you'll receive one of two responses from the editor, based on the peer review: Accepted with Major Revisions, or Accepted with Minor Revisions. If you carefully and thoughtfully selected the journal and specifically wrote your article to suit its stated scope and guidelines, it's less likely—though still possible—that your article will be Rejected. A fourth response, Accepted Without Revision, is rare, even for extremely experienced and accomplished writers. If you receive this last response, congratulations; you don't need to read the rest of this article until the next time you submit an article!

Taken together, the evaluation and the comments provided by reviewers will help you revise and improve your article. If your article was Rejected, it doesn't necessarily mean your article has no value and will never be published; just that it won't be published in that particular journal. Use the comments you received to improve your work, reformulate it if necessary, and submit it to another journal.

If your article was accepted with revisions, that's great! Read over the reviews, attending to whether the criticism is legitimate, or if it’s being critical simply for the sake of being critical. While it’s challenging to receive a critique, try to separate yourself from your work. Dr. Cuthbert recommends that you ask yourself the following questions: Did the reviewer make a good point? Did the reviewer miss your point? If so, is it because you didn’t write clearly? Honestly and objectively answering these questions help you work through the critique and address reviewers' concerns more effectively.

After reading through the comments, you may find it difficult to immediately work on editing. It’s probably better to put the comments aside for a day or two to think about how to address them, and take them up again when you’re ready. Share the comments with your co-authors, a mentor or faculty supervisor to gain perspective. Keep in mind that this criticism is not personal (even though it may feel that way). After you’ve carefully considered the feedback, it’s time for you to get to work.

If the recommendation was for major revisions, such as conducting further research, you’ll have to decide whether you want to make the improvements (and if it makes sense to conduct more research) or if you should possibly submit your article to a less demanding journal. With minor revisions, you may have to make just a few changes, such as citing an additional source, expanding your literature review, or substantiating a point you made. In either case, look closely at the reviewer’s comments to guide you through the process. 

To help you with the revision process, put yourself in the reviewer’s shoes. Looking at your work from the reviewer’s perspective helps you see where you’ve omitted key support and strengthen your arguments. Reviewer comments offer an opportunity to improve your work in tangible ways, and the work that you do in response to these reviews only makes your article better.

You can, with careful consideration, choose not to make a suggested change. You need to address this choice when you resubmit the paper to the editor. Do so politely (don’t question the reviewer’s abilities or otherwise engage in personal attacks), and keep in mind that the editor may still ask you to make those changes. These edits may take several weeks. After you’ve edited and improved the article, it’s time to send it back to the editor or off to another journal for consideration.

Complete the process of receiving feedback and make edits as necessary to get your article out the door and into the journal of your choice! While it takes time for you to respond to reviewer feedback, you'll ultimately have a stronger article that contributes to the scholarship in your area of expertise.