Reflections on research – Peer review

Dear [____________],

“Thank you for submitting your paper titled [insert title] to [insert journal name]. You will notice that the reviewers had a number of concerns, and we invite you to respond to their comments and re-submit a revised document.”

Hmmm, now what?

So your beautifully crafted manuscript has been submitted to one of your favourite journals. Some of your biggest and best findings are in this paper right? Sure there were a few minor issues with recruitment, but the journal editors are bound to see how this work can revolutionize patient care… you can just sense it!

Love it or loathe it, peer review is a key part of the research process. At its best, it puts your manuscript in front of a number of independent experts in your specific field, and provides an opportunity for considered feedback which will help you to improve your paper. Reviewers will ideally read your paper carefully, consider the methods used, clarity of writing, validity of the conclusions and overall interest to the audience. They also have the responsibility to point out design flaws and alternative interpretations of the data, as well as alerting the editors to possible plagiarism or academic fraud.

Yet in the real world it’s often not so easy. While peer reviewers perform an invaluable, voluntary service for the academic community, it is usually done after hours or in breaks between other pressing tasks. For the most part reviewers are well qualified to undertake their role, and many journals encourage reviewers to identify specific areas (e.g. statistics) where they feel less confident to comment. However, in some cases, reviewers have different perspectives to you, and this can lead to them coming to different conclusions about the merits of your research.

Based on their comments and recommendations (accept, minor revision, major revision, reject) the editors will make a decision about whether to take your paper further. It is quite rare for a paper to be accepted without any revisions, which means, if your paper is not rejected, more than likely you’ll be asked to make changes to your submission.

It can be a blow when you are asked to revise. A long list of concerns can sometimes make it feel like the reviewers are telling you off for being a bad scientist. However keep in mind that you’ve actually already negotiated two of the more difficult steps on the road to publication.

Firstly, your paper has made it to peer review. This means that the Editors have identified the work as relevant and of potential interest to their readers. Tick! Secondly, the reviewers have determined that your paper has sufficient merit to warrant further consideration. Remember they will not usually waste words praising the strong points of your paper. Instead they will jump straight into the changes they suggest.

So what’s the difference between ‘Minor’ and ‘Major’ revisions?

It can be tempting to interpret that a paper requiring ‘major revisions’ is less worthy than one requiring ‘minor revisions’. In fact the major/minor distinction refers to the process for ongoing revision.

Major revision means that at least one of the reviewers will read the revised paper and comment as to whether the revisions are satisfactory. Generally, minor revision means that only the Editor will need to see the revised paper before making a decision. Regardless of the category, you can consider the paper on the road to acceptance and should not despair!

Of course, it’s much easier to love the peer review process, and consider the reviewers as fair-minded, independent experts, when they have understood your paper, made a few helpful (minor) suggestions and recommended for acceptance. But don’t be surprised if at least one of your reviewers has given you a healthy dose of criticism and sent you back to work!

Coming soon – tips for responding to revisions…

@csinclair28 @AnnaLCollins

One thought on “Reflections on research – Peer review

  1. Great article guys. It is such a “good news/bad news” scenario when you get that response back isn’t it. As you say, I think expecting revisions and recognising the (possible) improvements in the paper is important. I also try to remember that research is one long learning curve, and peer-review is just a potentially bumpy part of that road.

    I look forward to your next piece on “how to respond.”


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