How papers are published, in 343 words

February 7, 2022

The peer-review cycle as it works at most established journals. Green lines show the positive path; red lines show the negative path; amber lines show the path of delay. Modified from Taylor and Wedel (in press: figure 1).

Many aspects of scholarly publishing are presently in flux. But for most journals the process of getting a paper published remains essentially the same as decades ago, the main change being that documents are sent electronically rather than by post.

It begins with the corresponding author of the paper submitting a manuscript — sometimes, though not often, in response to an invitation from a journal editor. The journal assigns a handling editor to the manuscript, and that editor decides whether the submission meets basic criteria: is it a genuine attempt at scholarship rather than an advertisement? Is it written clearly enough to be reviewed? Is it new work not already published elsewhere?

Assuming these checks are passed, the editor sends the manuscript out to potential reviewers. Since review is generally unpaid and qualified reviewers have many other commitments, review invitations may be declined, and the editor may have to send many requests before obtaining the two or three reviews that are typically used.

Each reviewer returns a report assessing the manuscript in several aspects (soundness, clarity, novelty, perhaps perceived impact) and recommending a verdict. The handling editor reads these reports and sends them to the author along with a verdict: this may be rejection, in which case the paper is not published (and the author may try again at a different journal); acceptance, in which case the paper is typeset and published; or more often a request for revisions along the lines suggested by the reviewers.

The corresponding author (with the co-authors) then prepares a revised version of the manuscript and a response letter, the latter explaining what changes have been made and which have not: the authors can push back on reviewer requests that they do not agree with. These documents are returned to the handling editor, who may either make a decision directly, or send the revised manuscript out for another round of peer review (either with the original reviewers or less often with new reviewers). This cycle continues as many times as necessary to arrive at either acceptance or rejection.

4 Responses to “How papers are published, in 343 words”

  1. Anne W. Says:

    One other basic criterion: is this paper relevant to the journal? I have been an Associate Editor at a journal with a statement saying “We publish papers on subjects X, Y and Z, but never on Q,” and gotten LOTS of papers on subject Q, and even more weirdly, random subject K. Sometimes things are just being submitted to the wrong journal.

    Authors, read those statements about what the journal publishes!

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Good point, Anne. Trouble is, if I edit the article to include “is this paper relevant to the journal?”, I will need to change the title to “… in 350 words”!

  3. LeeB. Says:

    Funny how it takes nearly twice as many words to describe this process than it does to describe how birds breathe.


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