In the last Ph.Do column, I suggested strategies for figuring out the right publication venue for your paper and described the logistical steps associated with preparing your manuscript for submission. In this piece, I discuss the various possible outcomes of the review process and how to respond to them.
The review process
After you submit your paper, the editor, the managing editor and/or the editorial team decide whether to consider the paper for review or not. Some journals automatically send out everything to be reviewed by other scholars. Others first consider whether the paper is a likely potential match for the journal. If the paper is deemed completely outside the scope of the journal or its quality does not meet a basic threshold required for consideration, it will get rejected outright. This is often referred to as "desk rejection" and means that the paper will not have been reviewed by peers. Ideally editors will notify authors of such a decision within a couple of weeks so that the author can find a more suitable venue for the piece without losing too much time.
Assuming that the journal staff decides to consider the paper, its next task is to find reviewers for it. Many academics are overwhelmed by the number of refereeing tasks they already have on their plate; others are free riders and will not take on their share of reviewer responsibility. The mix of these things results in journals having to reach out to many more potential reviewers than will ultimately review the paper. The process of finding enough suitable reviewers who agree to the task itself can take a while.
Most journals now work with online submission systems that make some parts of the review process more transparent than was possible in the age of e-mail attachment submissions, not to mention hard-copy processing. It is worth logging into the system periodically to check on the paper’s status (although it is not worth obsessing over it daily!). Since journals do not tend to let you know if they have sent your paper out for review, being proactive about it is often the only way to know. If you notice after about two weeks that your paper has not yet been assigned for review then consider sending an inquiry to the journal to check about the paper’s status and whether there is anything you can do to help it along.
In any and all communication with journal staff (editors, managerial assistants) you should always be very polite. Think of your notes as gentle inquiries rather than demands. Journal editors are often overwhelmed by submissions, people declining to review for them, people being late with their reviews and many other logistical matters associated with editing a publication. Being respectful can go a long way in getting a timely and helpful response to your query.
After a certain period of time – in my areas about three months – if the journal still has not responded with a decision about the manuscript, it is O.K. to send the editor or managing editor a short polite note to inquire about the paper’s status. It is not always easy to keep track of submission time lines – especially when you have more than one paper under review at a time – so consider creating a reminder (e.g., on your calendar) for 3 months after submission. Once the date rolls around, send a courteous short message to the journal requesting an update on the status of your piece. If receiving a timely decision is of special concern, e.g., you are about to go on the job market or are being considered for promotion soon, then that may be worth mentioning to the editor. It is, of course, important not to abuse this, but if you are about to send off your CV for job applications then it could make a substantial difference to hear back from a journal sooner rather than later and some editors are kind enough to take such special circumstances into consideration when making timely decisions about manuscripts.
Possible responses from the journal
The most common responses to a submission are either a request to revise and resubmit the piece (also referred to as an R&R) or a rejection. Outright acceptance and acceptance conditional on minor revisions are also possibilities, but are rather rare. (I received a conditional acceptance on my first-ever sole-authored journal submission while in graduate school and it spoiled me for a while. Before too long reality set in, though, and now I know how rare such responses are.)
Depending on the journal, an R&R may come in the form of a rejection where the editor then states that the journal would be open to considering a revised submission. It is important to read the letters carefully and if unclear about them, to consult with one’s mentors or request clarification from the editor. (A friend of mine in graduate school once spent a long time revising a manuscript according to the specific requests of reviewers thinking the paper had received an R&R only to be told upon resubmission that the verdict had been an outright rejection, not an R&R and the journal would not reconsider the piece. All of her revision efforts were not lost, of course, as some of the changes were likely useful for submission to another publication. Nonetheless, she would have put less effort into addressing some of the very specific requests of the reviewers had she understood the intentions conveyed in the letter better. In a very different case, a student thought her paper had been rejected by a journal only to have her adviser clarify that what sounded like a rejection was, in fact, a request to revise and resubmit the paper. The main takeaway is to share the editor’s letter and the reviewers’ reports with advisers and mentors who can help understand the response.)
Next steps after the response sinks in
In the case of an acceptance or conditional acceptance, it is time to celebrate. It is also time to respond quickly to any revision requests so that your paper continues to move through the pipeline.
If you receive a rejection, read over the reviewer comments and decide if any of them are worth addressing before sending the paper to another journal. It is important to recognize that another journal may turn to the same reviewers who had read your piece for the publication that just declined it so it is best not to ignore referee comments altogether. While the rejection is certainly frustrating and the reviews can be annoying to read under such circumstances, referees sometimes make very helpful suggestions that are worth incorporating into the paper. These will not only improve the piece, but will also preempt reviewers at other journals bringing up the same issues (even if they are not the same people as in the previous round).
Realistically speaking, it will be difficult to identify anything positive in the reviews upon first read, or even second. It is frustrating to have your hard work dismissed and critiqued, sometimes by people who clearly did not give your piece adequate attention when reviewing it. I recommend taking a day or two before going back to the referee reports. Approach them with an open mind and an eye toward how the negative experience of having had your piece declined can be turned into something positive. If you are having trouble identifying something useful in the reviews then ask a peer or mentor to read the feedback and help interpret it for you. And understand that many papers – some of them ultimately very influential ones – had at one time or another been rejected as well.
It is crucial that you not let a rejection get to you too much. Remember to keep that paper moving along. Make changes quickly and send the paper off for review to another journal before too long. If you continue to receive very negative, discouraging and critical comments from reviewers at several journals then consider seeking feedback from people you know to determine whether the piece is salvageable and what revision strategy – or perhaps what type of different publication venue – may improve its chances of a favorable response.
In the case of a request to revise and resubmit, you have the opportunity to make changes to the paper for reconsideration by the journal. In the ideal scenario, the editor includes a note accompanying the referee reports explaining how to approach the reviewers’ requests. This is important, because reviewers often disagree and this can be confusing for the author. If Reviewer A thought you should cut down your discussion of prior literature while Reviewer B requested that you expand it, you will be in a tough spot to satisfy both referees without some additional guidance. Unfortunately, not all editors provide such feedback with reviewers’ comments. If you are confused, consult a mentor for feedback based on the reports you received. If you continue to be stuck, consider contacting the editor for clarification. Recognize, however, that editors are overwhelmed with journal matters and it may be hard for them to get back to you for a while. If you write to them, be sure to be very concrete about your query and offer plenty of context to improve the chances of a helpful response.
As you work on the revisions to your manuscript, keep track of all of the changes you make. When you are ready to resubmit your piece, you will have to attach a letter to it that describes in detail how you addressed the reviewers’ comments. This is easiest to do if you take notes on the revisions along the way. Just as your correspondence with the editor should be polite, so should your comments to reviewers. They are the ones, after all, whose opinion about your piece will count considerably toward getting your piece published. If you believe that some comments are simply wrong (e.g., the reviewer misunderstood a statistical procedure) then (a) reword the discussion in the paper to help the reader understand it better; (b) clarify the point in your response letter to the reviewers; and (c) in a confidential note to the editor, consider mentioning the issue. But throughout the process, keep a level-headed and respectful tone in all communication.
It is important to submit a timely response to revision requests. The obvious reason is that you want your paper to proceed through the pipeline toward publication swiftly. There is an additional reason, however, that may make a difference. While referee reports are important to what decision a paper receives from a journal, it is ultimately up to the editor to accept the piece or not. Editors change, however, and the longer you take to resubmit your revised manuscript, the higher the chances that the editor who was sympathetic toward your paper is no longer the one who will make the final decision about it. Since you have no way of telling whether the new editor will feel as sympathetic toward your work as the initial editor did, it is in your best interest to get the paper back to the journal quickly. (Editorial tenure depends on the journal. Changes are more common at the publications of professional organizations since they tend to rotate editorial staff with some regularity).
The final process
What happens once your paper has been accepted for publication? Is it time to kick back and relax? It is certainly time to celebrate! But some work still remains to be done, although this part has a fun and exciting component as it concerns preparation for publication. The journal staff will ask you for a final copy of your manuscript. You should make any last changes at this stage as anything later in the process will require more work and effort (and some journals will charge for major changes after this point in the process). You cannot introduce any major revisions as that may result in a new review of your paper. But you can clarify points and this is the time to address any final requests by the reviewers or editor.
Once you submit your final piece, the paper will go into production and the journal staff will produce proofs that you will be asked to read over carefully. Journals usually give you just a few days (as little as 48 hours in some cases) to respond when they send you the final proofs (but recognize that they may not send these to you for several months). Be sure to read these very carefully. You are now looking at what will be in the final piece that gets published and then is read by people (scholars in your field, of course, but also people writing letters for your promotion case and those at your institution considering that case). It may well be that errors will have been introduced during the production process (whether these be typos or substantive mistakes resulting from an overzealous copy editor) so do read the material carefully.
When sending in your responses to the copy editor, be sure to make all changes as clear as possible (noting page and line numbers where appropriate). It is in your best interest, after all, that you minimize barriers to the copy editor's understanding the change requests you are making so that all edits are implemented. If you found several errors that are of special concern then consider asking the copy editor to send you a copy of the newly edited piece for one more final review.
Once your paper has been accepted by a journal, it is appropriate to list it on your CV as “forthcoming” or “in press” (inserted in lieu of the year of publication) even if it has not yet appeared and is still in the production process. Do be sure to update your CV with this information as publications matter at all stages of the academic career ladder and you should be proud of your accomplishment.