Once a manuscript is submitted to a journal, it goes through an initial screening process which involves a preliminary review by the journal editor or the editorial board. At this stage, the editor has to choose any one of the following outcomes for the paper:
1. Return without review: If the editor finds that the paper does not match the scope of the journal or does not meet the basic standards or expectations of the journal, (s)he may return the paper after initial screening without sending it for peer review. A paper could also be rejected at this stage if it has too many grammar and syntax errors; this is something that authors for whom English is a second language need to be careful about. However, the good thing is that the author is generally informed about the reason for return without review, so in case there is a major problem with the language, the paper can be professionally edited before it is submitted to the same or a different journal.
2. Recommend transfer to another journal: The editor may feel that the paper is not suitable for that particular journal, and may suggest that it could be transferred to another journal within the same publication banner. Usually, the transfer of documents takes place internally, but only after the author has given his/her approval. Sometimes, an editor may recommend submission to a journal that is not within the same publication banner. In that case, it is entirely up to the author to take forward the submission process.
3. Send the manuscript for peer review: If, after the initial screening, the editor feels that the paper matches the scope and meets the basic requirements of the journal, (s)he will send it for peer review. Copies of the paper are usually sent out to two to three peer reviewers.
Manuscripts that are sent out for peer review receive comments and recommendations from the peer reviewers. Based on these reviews, the editor takes a final decision on the manuscript. While reviewer inputs are extremely valuable for the editor, they are just recommendations, not final decisions. The final decision on the manuscript rests with the editor. So there may be instances when the editor (1) accepts a paper if (s)he is convinced about the credibility of a paper even if it has received negative comments from all the reviewers, or (2) rejects a paper if (s)he finds it unworthy of publication even if the reviewers have given positive feedback.
An editor makes one of the following decisions for a peer–reviewed manuscript:
1. Accept in its present form: This means that the journal will publish the paper in its original form, and no changes are required. It is extremely unusual for a paper to receive this decision.
2. Accept with minor revisions: Also known as conditional acceptance, this decision means that the paper requires minor changes for it to be accepted. Instances of this decision are also rather rare. When a paper receives a minor revision decision, it might not be sent for a second round of peer review; usually, the editor goes through the revisions and gives a final approval. However, it is good to remember that an ‘accept with minor revisions’ decision does not guarantee acceptance. The paper will be accepted only if the editor is satisfied with the changes made.
3. Accept with major revisions: An editor arrives at this decision when a manuscript needs to be substantially improved before it can be accepted. The author has to submit the revised manuscript along with a point-by-point response to the reviewer comments. The revised manuscript is likely to be sent for a second round of peer review. Usually, the paper is sent to the same set of reviewers who had reviewed it the first time, but the editor may choose to send it to a different set of reviewers. The results of the second review or “rereview,” as is it referred to by some journals, are based on how well the author has addressed the reviewer and editor comments. In case the author is unable to address all the comments in a satisfactory manner, further revisions may be required, or, in the worst case, the paper might be rejected.
4. Revise and resubmit: Sometimes a manuscript may receive a rejection, but the editor might show willingness to consider the manuscript if it is revised and resubmitted as a new submission. If the author wishes to proceed with this, s(he) needs to revise the paper substantially based on the reviewer and editor comments, and submit it to the same journal as a new submission. This submission needs to be accompanied by a letter that states the original submission id and explains how the reviewers' comments have been addressed. The editor will review the revised paper and the letter and send the paper for a new round of peer review if required.
5. Reject: This is an outright rejection decision, and in most cases, the journal will not publish the paper or reconsider it even if the author makes major revisions.
The journal decision making process is indeed a long and complex one and authors are not always clear about each step in the process. While different journals have different systems, and might use slightly different terminology, the above decisions are more or less common to all journals. If you have other questions or doubts, this article about frequently asked questions on the journal decision making process might be of help. If you have any questions, feel free to post them on our Q&A forum for researchers. Our team of publication experts will definitely help you.
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