Publication plays a vital role in the scientific process by disseminating the results and initial conclusions of research to the appropriate audience, allowing results to be validated, modified or disproven by subsequent study. Peer review acts like a filter to ensure that the community is reading valid or relevant and rigorously checked material. It also helps to improve articles via the process of manuscript assessment, revision and reassessment. From the author’s point of view — having already thought about the work very carefully, possibly having reviewed it with colleagues and having refined it — peer review may feel like an obstacle to publication. Further, being exposed to qualitative judgments, peer review can appear less precise than the science that it regulates. So how should you approach the process? Below are some helpful suggestions.
What do I gain from this experience?
There are at least three things to gain from the peer-review experience:
- An improved manuscript, so that when it is published it is better received by the whole community (even if it ends up being published elsewhere)
- General lessons on how to improve research methods and how to better present the findings
- A better understanding of how to navigate the peer review process itself to get the best possible results for the present or future publication of the manuscripts
Understanding the peer-review process
What is the first step?
The first substantive stage of the review process is the initial editorial screening. This is increasingly used to spare reviewers time, often filtering out work that is out of scope, low-quality or not sufficiently original. Rejection by the editor is disheartening to an author. However, if a manuscript really is unsuitable for the journal, it saves author, as well as reviewer, time for it to be redirected early in the process. The rejection message sent by editors to authors should give a reason for the rejection, which should help the author gain a better understanding of the journal requirements and/or scope.
This will be useful when deciding where to submit future work and how to better communicate the relevance of the work in the cover letter and/or article abstract and introduction. It also may reveal a misunderstanding by the editor of the submitted manuscript. This issue may be resolved by contacting the editor and having a direct discussion about the manuscript and its contents.
What is the next step?
Once the editor has assigned your manuscript to an Editorial Board Member, the peer review process begins. ARVO editors and staff make every effort to minimize processing times and review cycles, but do not want to compromise quality for hurriedness.
Receiving the first reviews with the editor’s comments may be the most exciting step in the whole process. When these are positive, but with constructive feedback, it is easy for the authors to see how to gain from the process, quickly improve their work and progress to publication.
When the comments are more negative, it is important for the author not to overreact, and to take a considered approach in responding to the comments and in revising the manuscript. In most cases, negative comments will be well-intended and will be expressed politely. It is important also to remember that even criticism that is poorly expressed is still intended to show how the work may be improved.
The best response to a disputed comment is to address it calmly, acknowledge any element of truth and explain where it may be misunderstood. If the reviewers have not fully understood the work, it may be that the general reader would also misunderstand. Addressing this by further clarifying the work will often improve it.
Dealing with rejection
Rejection is perhaps even harder to deal with after going through the peer review process. This is especially true when revisions have been made to accommodate reviewers’ concerns. However, it is important to remember that more manuscripts are rejected from ARVO journals than accepted, and most of these (at least an estimated 70%) are ultimately published elsewhere. Advice received during the review process and changes made to the manuscript should be beneficial and help toward eventual publication of the work, even when it ends up in another journal.
When considering the fairness of the decision, remember that the peer review process is not precise and relies on judgment calls. There will be times when an author is right and the reviewers and editors, acting in good faith, are later shown to be mistaken on technical issues or to have underestimated the significance of the work. Even when an author believes that this is the case, there may be opportunities to strengthen the manuscript in these areas before submitting elsewhere.
ARVO journal editors and staff are always glad when we are able to publish your manuscript, and hope that something constructive can be learned whenever we do not.