How to make the journal review process seamless: Recommendations from a journal editor

This article is part of a Series
This article is part of a Series

A manuscript’s journey from an editor’s perspective

Many authors do not know exactly what goes on behind the scenes in a journal’s editorial office, from manuscript submission to final decision. In this series of posts, an experienced journal editor tells us more about the editorial structure of a journal as well as its evaluation and decision-making processes. This series sheds light on the factors that are at play during manuscript publication, how editorial decisions are made, and what the sequence of events in the publication process is.

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How to make the journal review process seamless: Recommendations from a journal editor

In the earlier parts of this series, I have described how an Associate Editor handles a submission, the different actions and processes that go into it, and the factors that determine how smooth the editorial decision making process will be for authors. In this post - the last in the series - I have a few recommendations and requests for those involved in the journal review and decision making process, which will, hopefully, help iron out the creases in the system.  

Recommendations to authors

It is easy to imagine that a journal will immediately recognize the novelty and importance of a submitted paper, and that the editors will quickly identify experts who can judge the merits of the submission. However, the reality is perhaps less ideal: there is no guarantee that the EiC will be able to match the paper to the best AE for the paper, or that the assigned AE will be able to identify and secure the most expert peer reviewers. Authors can help this process in the following ways:

Suggest suitable Associate Editors: It is often appropriate to suggest an AE to handle the paper. Take a look at the editorial board, and see which AEs have familiarity with the area. The suggestion usually can be communicated to the EiC as part of the cover letter, or within the online submission system.

Suggest suitable reviewers: Before my experience as an AE, I did not think it was necessary to suggest peer reviewers: I assumed the journal staff should easily be able to identify an expert set of reviewers. Proffering suggestions seemed to imply that the nominees were my cronies. Now I realize that it is very valuable to suggest peer reviewers: there is no guarantee that the AE will be a leading expert in the domain of the paper, and I find that reviewer suggestions are useful input to me as an AE. I carefully evaluate suggested reviewers, and only follow up if it is clear that they are suited for the paper, and do not have conflicts of interest with the authors. I tend to invite only one or two suggested reviewers, and complete the panel with “independent” reviewers, to avoid any issue of bias. Authors should realize that their suggested peer reviewers may not accept the invitation, and there is little value in suggesting a “big-name” researcher who is too busy. Lastly, some journals also allow authors to indicate “non-preferred” reviewers, that is, reviewers whom they would not want to review their paper. I can think of very few situations where this is of use to authors, and it is only fair that the authors give a clear explanation as to why they would not prefer a particular reviewer.

Think about your citations: Think carefully about which works you cite, and whether there are any important references missing. An AE will often look to the bibliography for potential reviewers to invite. So authors should realize that their bibliography is another list of “suggested reviewers”. They should also reflect on how fairly they describe and compare to prior work, since the authors of those works may be called upon to judge the submission.

Optimize your revisions: As I have already explained, the revision will often be handled by the same AE as the original submission, and will typically be read by the same peer reviewers. It is therefore sensible to optimize the revision accordingly. Make a cover document containing each review, and indicate how you respond to each point: what changes were made, and where. It is OK to disagree with a reviewer comment, so long as you explain why. It is also helpful to indicate which sections have changed in the paper, via highlighting. This takes extra work, but this type of effort can make the review process go much more smoothly, and hence reduce the time to publication.

Recommendations to Reviewers

These are perhaps more pleas than recommendations for peer reviewers:

Respond swiftly and decisively to requests: As an AE, my goal is to provide well-informed decisions to authors in a timely fashion. This starts with receiving a response to the initial review request. My sincere request to reviewers is that you don’t sit on a review request for weeks: it is usually only the work of a few moments to determine one’s current level of commitments, and availability to accept a new task. A swift response is often appreciated, even if it is negative. Please also provide alternate reviewer suggestions as a matter of course. Often, I receive a request and I think “Why are they asking me? Why don’t they ask X?”. The reason may be that the AE does not know that X is the expert on this topic – so please inform them of this! You can also use declining a review request as an opportunity to advance the career of a more junior member of your community, by suggesting someone less well-known, who might in fact be a good match for the paper.

Honor your commitments: When you accept to perform a review, you are making a commitment to deliver the review by the date agreed. This commitment should be taken seriously. It is easy to devalue the importance of review work – after all, it is “voluntary” work. However, I view reviewing as an obligation: when we submit papers, we expect them to receive appropriate and timely reviews, and so we should perform reviews similarly. It is tempting to think of peer reviews as less important than the many other demands on our time (our own research, teaching, and funding deadlines), and allow the reviews to get progressively delayed. But this is quite unprofessional. It delays the process for authors, who need to get timely decisions in order to publish their work and advance their careers.

It goes without saying that you should do a good, careful job in reviewing the paper. For guidance on this, there are several good articles offering guidance for inexperienced peer reviewers.

You should always accept a request to review a revision of a paper. The work involved should be much less than that for the original review (especially if the authors have suitably optimized their revision). If you asked for changes, then you should at least look at the authors’ response.

Accept a reasonable number of requests: It is hard to load-balance incoming peer review requests: sometimes, many arrive in close proximity. However, as indicated above, it is important to be an active participant in the review process, and do your fair share. One heuristic is to perform 3 − 4 reviews for each submission you make (assuming that each paper does have multiple authors), but more senior people may need to do more.

Understand the expectations based on the type of review: Be aware that a journal article review carries different expectations than a conference submission review. A journal review is expected to be in greater depth, and to more carefully scrutinize the whole paper. Consequently, the review should attempt to evaluate the paper in full, or be explicit about which sections could not be verified. Journal papers may also be (much) longer than a typical conference submission, so one to several months is allotted to perform the review. However, do not leave the review for the last minute.

Recommendations to Associate Editors

The above discussion has outlined the workflow I tend to follow in handling a paper. Implicit in this are several recommendations and considerations:

Be considerate of authors: Your goal as an AE is to oversee a fair and timely handling of submissions to your journal. So try to ensure that each submission has a fair chance, by identifying and inviting suitable peer reviewers, and using these to make good decisions on papers. In some cases, the most considerate thing to do is to swiftly reject a paper, rather than enter it into a lengthy review process, taking up reviewers’ effort, and ultimately reaching the same outcome.

Be considerate of reviewers: Try to identify peer reviewers who are best suited to the paper at hand, and try to avoid asking the same reviewers to help with many papers. Be understanding when reviewers need more time to review a paper, while firmly reminding them of their obligation. Remember that reviewing is a mark of service to the community, and an indication of the esteem with which the opinion of the reviewer is held, so be sure to allow junior researchers the opportunity to participate in the peer review process. This can also be a learning opportunity for them to see firsthand how peer review works in practice, and to calibrate their opinions against the reviews of others.

Be considerate of yourself:  When I started as an AE, I had high aspirations: I would read each paper in detail, and provide my own review and comments in addition to those of the invited reviewers. This lasted for exactly one paper. For journals with high publication volumes, you may handle 20-30 papers per year, on a wide variety of topics, and it simply is not practical, nor a good use of your time, to try to do too much. Stick to the core tasks, and you will be doing the community a service.

By way of guidance, here are my estimated times for handling a submission. Of course, these can vary: an obviously unsuitable paper may be faster to handle.

 Read and think about paper: 1-2 hours

  • Search for and invite initial reviewers: 1 hour
  • Handle review responses, and find replacement reviewers: 1-2 hours.
  • Receive and process reviews: 0.5 hours total
  • Chase reviewers to deliver their reviews: 1 hour
  • Re-visit paper, and formulate recommendation: 1 hour

And this concludes my article series, including my recommendations for improvement of the editorial decision-making process. I hope I have been able to give authors a clear picture of what goes on behind the scenes when they submit their paper to a journal.


This post is a modified version of the article What does an Associate Editor actually do? originally published on the website of the Association for Computing Machinery, Special Interest Group On Management of Data.This post has been modified and republished with the permission of the author, and is the fourth and final part of the series. 

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Published on: Mar 30, 2016

Experienced researcher, academic, editor, and published author. Associate editor for ACM Transactions on Database Systems (TODS) and the Journal of Discrete Algorithms.
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