How peer review really works

Peer review is the process which scientific journals use to help editors decide on what to publish and what to reject. It is not perfect and not always a pleasant experience but on the whole it works and researchers freely, and unpaid, give their time to make it work.

The exact experience of peer review for a researcher submitting to a journal depends on the field they work in, but is much the same for most reputable publishers. First, you have to write a paper: you might already have a journal in mind when you start, or you might decide where to send it after you write the paper. You might be boycotting Elsevier or you might not. Either way, you pick a journal.

The choice of journal depends on how good you think the work is and who you want to read the paper. Most people want their work to appear in a good journal, if only as reassurance that the paper is of a certain standard. There is also the pressure to publish in `high quality’ journals which bring prestige to your CV and your department. If your work is good, you also want it to be read by the right people. This might mean other researchers who will appreciate the elegance of your method, or it might mean end-users who will make practical use of your work.

So you format the paper according to the requirements of the journal and submit it through their online system, by uploading a PDF. You might also be asked to nominate an editor to handle the paper, and maybe some potential reviewers. If the editor does not reject the paper immediately, as not within the scope of the journal say, she sends it to the reviewers for advice on whether to publish.

If you are one of the reviewers, you receive an email with some information about the paper, asking if you will take the job on. Usually, you do: other people are doing the same for your papers, so you should do likewise. Your first job is to read the paper. The editor wants to know if the paper should be rejected or accepted. Your second job is to say yes or no, giving reasons and conditions, with a commentary on the paper.

If the author has written a decent paper, the usual response is `Publish with changes’, meaning that the work is good enough to appear in the journal, and is of the right type, but it needs some changes, either to clarify some points, or to give some more evidence for the claims made. Often, this is the first time the paper has been read by another expert, so comments like this are useful and welcome.

The editor gets the reviews, after a month or two, and passes the comments on to the author, possibly with a few words of their own, along with a decision. If the decision is `Accept’ with no changes required (very unusual), the manuscript is sent to the publisher and a few months later, it appears online, and in a printed volume a bit later. If some changes are required, the author sets to work and rewrites the paper: this might take a day or it might take a year, depending on what is required. If it looks unfeasible, they might simply withdraw the paper and send it somewhere else. Likewise, if the paper is rejected, for reasons other than being rubbish, you reformat for another journal and send it to somebody else.

When the paper appears online, it is a `publication’ and you add it to your CV. If you are part of the Research Excellence Framework, you might submit the paper to be included in your department’s submission. Then you start all over again.

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