Peer review and the publishing cycle
We all know what peer review is and its importance in the publishing cycle. We all know how widely recognized the value of reviewers is and how important their contribution is. We all know how demanding peer review is and how much time and dedication it takes to provide a good peer review… Especially today, where there is an incredible abundance of scientific contributions, where online availability has reached unseen numbers.
But, do we really know what happens behind a journal’s cover, where peer review is handled? Maybe not at all… so let’s find out how peer review fits into a journal’s life.
How submissions are handled varies greatly on the size of the journal and its publisher. Larger journals usually have the support of sophisticated tools, including artificial intelligence (!), while smaller journals rely mostly on the skills of their editorial office staff.
The Editorial Office has the important role of mediating among all parties involved to ensure that all submission sail smoothly across all stages of submission, peer review, and final editorial decision, with a robust and efficient communication.
Upon receiving a manuscript, the editorial office performs several controls on the submission. The purpose is to identify possible flaws worth reporting to the editors, as a support towards selecting reviewers and finally making a decision. These may cover all or just some of the following:
Technical check, to ensure the submission is complete with all that enables Editors and Reviewers to evaluate it and compliant with the minimum technical requirements necessary for production in case of acceptance. For example, that word count is adequate, that references are correctly formatted, that disclosures have been included and that a corresponding author is correctly identified.
Ethical check, to ensure the submission does not present potential ethical issues regarding authorship, financial support, plagiarism issues and issues relating to conflict of interest. Sophisticated tools can assist the editorial office in establishing the initial quality of a new contribution, and this often before evaluating its scientific value.
The result of these initial check is that no submissions with a low score will be assigned to reviewers. A paper assigned to a reviewer will be in its best format for evaluation, thus making the input of the peer reviewer definitely easier. This is a small token for a reviewer, but usually takes considerable time to editorial office staff.
Providing guidance. Most publishers now provide detailed guidelines and tools to enable reviewers to submit their comments in the easiest possible way, at the same time structuring their comments in a standardized format, more efficient for journal editors.
Engaging peer reviewers
Most academics see performing peer review as a service to the community, but it remains a voluntary service that they fit in when they have the time.
Identification and selection: many sophisticated tools have been introduced to ease the reviewer identification and selection process, some provide an indications of ongoing reviewer engagements. The final purpose is to enable to select as accurately as possible the right reviewer, with as close a match to any given topic, and availability as needed by the journal. These programs rely greatly on metadata and on innovative technologies.
Curating reviewer lists is a regular editorial office activity, to ensure that up-to-date contact details are always available for the editors: this is an incredible help to maintain a healthy peer review echosystem.
Informing reviewers is not only kind but highly appreciated. Peer review systems enable to keep reviewers informed of the evolution of the manuscript, right down to the final decision. Reviewers generally like to know the final decision on a manuscript for which they participated in evaluating. Having visibility of other reviewers and their comments is an additional feature which is growing very popular within the reviewer community.
After a manuscript has been thoroughly evaluated and a decision has been made, the reviewers work is now completed – so they can look forward to the reward stage – and a new stage in the editorial process cycle starts.
The production process will generally take care of validating the contents of the manuscript through professional copy-editing services, reviewing artwork and proceed to creating article proofs, ready for approval by the authors. Once contents have been approved and administrative procedures have been completed, the article will be published online according to each publisher’s standards. Other tasks are then manually or automatically taken care of by a publisher, to ensure all contents are available to indexes and databases as soon as possible, to ensure maximum visibility.
Rewarding reviewers is another increasingly important step and many options are now available. The most straightforward approach is to thank them at the end of each year, publishing an acknowledgement in the journal. A peer review certificate is another way to thank them, as well as access to journal premium content and discounts or through our peer review rewarding system.
All publishers, whether small or large, generate and review periodical journals performance reports. They may be very detailed or take into account only aggregated data, but a great deal of information is gained by running regular reporting.
Timing is frequently one of the more investigated elements, although several attempts to measure quality is being introduced and tested. Journal builds their reputation also ensuring a fast decision making and publication process, which is likely to attract authors, as well as to place the journal as a vibrant tool for communicating new research.
Through the more sophisticated peer review tools available, data on any of the following peer review stages may be reported:
- Editorial triage time
- Time from initial submission to Editor assignment
- Time from submission to first/desk decision
- Average number of reviewers invited
- Average number of reviewers agreed
- Average number of reviews returned
- Average days for reviewers to reply to an invitation
- Average days for reviewers to return their first/subsequent comments
- Time from completion of peer review to editorial decision
- Time with authors for revision
- Time from initial submission to first and final decision
- Time from acceptance to initial (online) publication
- Time from acceptance to final (usually print) publication
Data may be further refined for additional metrics, like article type, individual Editors or geographic areas and usually reporting takes into account submission levels, as this may – as an example – generate slower turnaround times.
All metrics need to be interpreted and analyzed to judge if they are actionable and to know which may be applied to enhance the efficiency of the peer review process.