Peer review is a long-hallowed practice in academic publishing, but it can be daunting for authors just entering the fray. This is because new scholars are often unfamiliar with the process and have little experience on the other side of the business (as peer reviewers or editors). Plus, early career scholars are understandably anxious about their careers. Academia is a hierarchy in which unestablished scholars—graduate students and postdocs most of all—occupy the lowest rung. The combination of lack of power and concern for the future can make anonymous peer reviewers feel like the disembodied voice of “the discipline,” pronouncing judgment on the author’s intelligence, value, and professional prospects.
But such anxieties are mostly unwarranted. Peer review is a mundane practice and easily demystified. Here are the most important things to know.
1. Peer review serves a gatekeeper function
Peer review ensures that published research passes a high bar for clarity, rigor, novelty, and engagement with the scholarly literature. It can also help editors determine whether the manuscript matches their publication goals. Especially for academic journals and presses that receive a large volume of submissions, the question of “fit” is more important than authors often realize.
There are several types of peer review. Double-blind review, where neither the author nor the reviewer knows the other’s identity, is typical in the humanities and social sciences. Single-blind review, where the reviewer knows the author’s identity but not vice versa, is more common in the sciences. Occasionally, peer review remains blind during the process, but identities are revealed once the research goes to print. There are other varieties of peer review as well—including “collaborative review,” where reviewers work together to create a single report.
Anonymity is widely deemed important to minimizing bias and guaranteeing that reviewers can provide a candid assessment. Studies suggest bias appears most frequently against researchers who are women or minorities or whose names or affiliations simply are not widely known. It also appears in favor of famous authors from elite universities.
2. What does a peer review report look like?
Though most academics are invested in their fields and take peer reviewing seriously, much still depends on the reviewer’s time, energy, and sense of responsibility. Some reviewers turn in a terse list of vague reflections, whereas others submit pages of dense and detailed commentary.
Publishers often supply guidelines to reviewers to ensure that peer reviews are helpful to author and publisher alike. Standard guidelines will ask for
- a summary of the author’s argument and contribution to the literature;
- recommendations for improvements regarding sources and data, the framing of the argument within the field, and the manuscript’s overall clarity and coherence;
- evidence from the manuscript to justify the reviewer’s criticisms;
- an evaluation of the manuscript’s strengths; and
- a recommendation about whether the manuscript should be accepted as is, accepted with minor or major revisions, or declined outright.
3. How are peer reviewers chosen?
The selection process for peer reviewers can be haphazard. Editors may have reviewers in mind or they may ask colleagues, editorial board members, and other outside experts to suggest reviewers. Frequently, authors are permitted to recommend reviewers themselves. While this can present a conflict of interest, the practice also recognizes that authors are often best positioned to know who is qualified to evaluate their work.
If you are allowed to recommend reviewers, resist the impulse to “game” the system. It is unethical to have friends, recent collaborators, or others at the same institution review your work—so do not recommend them!
Instead, propose a diverse slate of reviewers, ideally from different parts of the world, in different fields, and with different viewpoints. Consider whose expertise you would most like to consult. Rather than look for sympathetic reviewers, identify scholars who will critically engage with your work. If a manuscript is promising, even reviewers who disagree with aspects of it are likely to recognize your accomplishment and recommend publication.
Given that authors are at the mercy of reviewers, there is a nerve-wracking element of chance in peer review. Sometimes peer reviewers agree closely about a manuscript, but just as often they vary in their assessment. Knowing this should help new authors remember to not take reviews personally.
4. Once you have the peer reviews, what should you do?
Above all, lean into this process. Even if your manuscript is declined, you will get the peer reports and have the opportunity to learn from them. Many an article and book have been declined by one publisher, revised, and published elsewhere. The decision to decline is never the scholarly community’s final verdict but merely one publisher’s choice. Authors normally cannot resubmit declined work to the same publisher, but there is no shortage of journals or presses. Try and try again.
Papers and book manuscripts accepted “as is,” with no request for revisions, are rare. You should not only expect to revise but welcome the chance to improve your research based on expert feedback. Serious scholars are eager to discover what is unpersuasive about their work.
Peer review is not the same as developmental editing, but it should help you develop your work to better meet the expectations (or challenge the assumptions) of typical readers in your field.
5. What should you do if you’re asked to revise and resubmit?
Barring guidance from the editors, you should address all of the reviewers’ suggestions and recommendations—or, if doing so is not feasible, be prepared to explain why.
You may also be asked to respond directly to the reviewers’ reports and spell out how you incorporated changes into the revised manuscript. Be succinct, reasonable, grateful, professional, and flexible. This is not the place to explain to reviewer #1 that they appear ignorant of the last twenty years of research, or to insinuate that reviewer #2 likely just glanced at your manuscript during breakfast.
But also do not be afraid to stand your ground if, after reflection and additional reading, you think that reviewer #1 misunderstood your argument in section three, or that reviewer #2’s call for additional background goes beyond the scope of the manuscript.
6. Journals and presses differ in how much they intervene between authors and reviewers
Some journals will hand authors their reviews back and say “fix it.” Others may indicate to authors which points in the reviews they find most urgent. Good editors understand that reviewers sometimes make unreasonable or contradictory demands, and they want to serve the reader by first serving the author.
Ask your editor for guidance if you find the reviews confusing, caustic, uncomprehending, or full of impossible demands, or if you suspect a conflict of interest. Despite efforts to remove bias, it can still creep in. While the best peer reviews are critical yet encouraging, with “specific and actionable” feedback, reviewers sometimes blunder. They defend methodological turf; they resist new approaches; they narrowly promote their own research agenda; and they opine about the argument the author should have made instead of evaluating the one actually made.
7. Where you publish matters
For academic journal publishing, consider carefully where to submit your work. How fast manuscripts are shepherded through a journal’s peer-review process is an important consideration. Some journals take weeks, while others are notoriously slow and may take well over a year. Indeed, some journals have learned to cash in on the problem, offering accelerated peer review for a fee. If quick turnaround is important (for reasons of promotion and job hunting, say, or because your research is timely), find out what you can about a journal’s peer-review system and average timeline before submitting.
Ask colleagues which journals have a reputation as slowpokes. Many journals make public the submission, acceptance, and publication dates for articles—data that paints a good picture of a journal’s speediness.
8. Lean into the process
Finally, the fastest way to become comfortable with peer review is simply to go through it. Submit your work. The worst outcome is that you get valuable feedback but a publisher declines to proceed. You can always submit the manuscript elsewhere.
Working for an academic journal is also a fantastic way to see how the sausage is made. If you belong to a department or professional association that operates a peer-reviewed journal, see if you can get involved. Doing so is the best way to see what it’s like from the other side of the table.
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About the author
Eliah is a historian and academic editor. He has experience with the peer-review process as an author of scholarly articles, as a peer reviewer, and as the managing editor of an academic journal. Bures received his PhD in European history from UC Berkeley and studied editing at the University of Chicago.