Responding to Peer Review

Mysteries of Publishing*

Peer review is of such importance in scholarly publishing that there is now an annual global “Peer Review Week”! This year’s event is coming up – September 19-23 – with the theme  “Research Integrity: Creating and supporting trust in research.” The week will feature online events, live events in many different locations, blogs, videos and podcasts! And so we are featuring the “mysteries of peer review” on as we begin September 2022! Whether you are an aspiring author, or a beginner who is just starting to become familiar with nursing journals, understanding peer review is a vital piece of the puzzle that results in the journal articles and books that you read! In last week’s post by Jacqueline Fawcett she described her experience as a peer reviewer and gave examples of feedback that she typically provides for authors. In this post I focus on the author’s experience of peer review, and how to respond to the reviewers’ feedback related to your hard-earned manuscript!

Imagine that you have finally submitted your manuscript to be considered for publication in a nursing journal after working to make it as near to perfect as it possibly can be! Then you receive the outcome of the peer review! The letter from the Editor will tell you one of three basic decisions: accept, revise, or reject. It is extremely rare to get a decision that your article is accepted exactly as it is, no matter how perfect and important you think it is. If the peer reviewers and editor think your article is indeed wonderful and important you will probably receive a letter that affirms this, but that also calls for some minor revisions.

If you do receive a letter telling you that revision is required – it is time to rejoice, despite your disappointment. Never, ever, decline an opportunity to revise. Even though revisions do not guarantee that the revised article will be accepted and published, editors only ask for revision if they anticipate that your article deserves serious consideration. Your task is now to go through the reviewer and editor comments and recommendations, and carefully respond to each suggestion. Create a table that shows a column for each comment or recommendation, and a column that describes what you have done to change the manuscript in response to each specific suggestion. If you disagree with the suggestion, or feel it is not appropriate for what you are writing, explain your perspective. Carefully follow the journal’s “author’s guide” to make sure that your final manuscript meets the journal requirements. This is a complex process; often it is tedious, but it typically results in an article that is much improved! So hang in!

Then there is the extremely disappointing rejection. The fact is that most submissions are rejected, in part due to the fact that journals receive many more submissions than they can possibly publish. But there are things to take into account from the beginning that will reduce your chance of getting that dreaded rejection letter. I have provided detailed explanations of the common reasons for both rejections and requests for revisions in an article published in Nurse Author and Editor, titled “Dealing with the Disappointment of the “Reject” or “Revise” Letter“. Here are the main reasons for rejection, and a few hints on how to deal with this disappointing outcome and move forward toward ultimate publication:

  • Your manuscript is not a good fit for the journal. This is by far the most common reason for rejection, and it can also be a factor involved in being asked to revise. You can avoid this by doing your “journal due diligence” ahead of submission. Read articles published in the journal over several recent issues to become familiar, if you are not already, with the general “tone” of the material they publish, the range or topics they focus on, thinking as you read if you can see your article appearing as one of the articles published in this journal. Is your article a good “fit”? Read the author’s guide (or “information for authors”) thoroughly from beginning to end. Some journal guidelines are brief, but most are very detailed, explaining what kinds of articles they seek to publish and what they require in terms of style, format, and writing standards. Follow these guidelines line by line, and your chances for success increase dramatically!
  • Your manuscript is not sufficiently developed, or it is not developed to meet the needs of the journal audience. All journals have a defined “audience”. Some journals expect their audience to be primarily practicing nurses; others serve an audience of students, faculty or researchers (or a combination of these readers). Some journals primarily provide material for educators, or administrators. The journal’s audience implies what the journal assumes that their readers already know or understand, which determines the “level” of information you need to include in your article. For example, in a journal whose audience is assumed to already be familiar with basic nursing theory, you can refer to any well-known nursing theory in your article without explaining the details of that theory, and focus instead of how that theory is pertinent to what you are writing. If the journal audience is likely to not already be familiar with a theory you use, then you may have to include some level of explanation or description of the theory.
  • Your manuscript is poorly written. Good writing requires re-writing and re-writing and re-writing and . . . . . Even if you have developed advanced writing skills, you probably will make several revisions to your manuscript before you submit to a journal. (As an aside, I have revised this post so many times I lost count, and I am sure there is still room for improvement!). You want to be sure that the content is well-organized, thorough but without unnecessary repetition, flows logically and clearly, and that each sentence is clear and meaningful to the content. New writers and writers whose native language is not English have real challenges in achieving the expected level of writing for any particular English-language journal, so you may need to seek assistance to make sure your manuscript is well written. All writers will benefit from inviting colleagues to review their manuscript in advance of submission to get feedback on all of these aspects of your submission. It is a good idea at the time you ask for this favor, to promise to return the favor for anything they are preparing for publication! In fact, this is the “unseen” part of the formal peer review process! Peer reviewers are those who have themselves benefitted from peer review of their own published work; they are in essence returning the favor when they review your submitted manuscript!
  • There are problems in the content of your manuscript. Your peer reviewers will have pointed out the problems that they detect. If you can make the changes that address the problems, do so and resubmit your manuscript to the same, or a different journal. If you are submitting to a different journal, be sure to follow the new journals author’s guide, making all the style and formatting changes needed for the new journal. If you do not agree with the assessment of the reviewers, remember that reviewers are representative of any future readers, so consider ways you can present your content so that a reader like this reviewer will not draw the same mistaken conclusion about your content.

Note that specific examples of all of these reasons for rejection or revision are reflected in Dr. Fawcett’s post last week, written from the perspective of the peer reviewer. Francie Likis, DrPH, NP, CNM, FACNM, FAAN, Editor Emeritus of the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health shares with authors a great description of how to respond to reviewer feedback; she has provided this for download here. Also is more great advice from Anna Valdez, Ph.D., RN, FAEN, FAADN, Editor-in-Chief, Teaching and Learning in Nursing

My advice to authors for responding to reviewers is to make sure they address everything the reviewer(s)  provide as feedback, even if they disagree. It is important to tell reviewers why you chose not to follow their feedback. That allows me the opportunity to see their rationale and I think it is helpful to reviewers too. I think using a table with the reviewer comments and the author(s) response is the best way to provide responses. As an editor, I read to see how the feedback is addressed and tables make that process easy. Also, I know reviewers sometimes give unhelpful advice or can come across in negative ways. Authors should resist the urge to be rude or condescending in their responses. That never helps the process. Of course, I provide directions if I don’t agree with reviewers and will edit harsh wording.  Lastly, if the journal does not ask for track changes I prefer authors just upload a clean copy of the manuscript with their table. I find if they upload track changes and a clean copy the reviewers get confused about what they are reviewing. 

(Anna Valdez, personal communication, September 6, 2022)

Every article you read in a journal has gone through this process. It is not a perfect process, and as a reader you will find points you disagree with, and even flaws and issues with articles you read in a journal. There are many proposals for possible alternatives to peer review, but the general consensus remains – some form of peer review is important as a way to assure that the material in professional journals is credible and reliable. You can Google “peer review” and find many articles and even books on the topic, and find debates about possible options to the standard peer review process.

If you are interested in more of an immersion in issues surrounding peer review, consider participating in the many activities available online during this year’s “Peer Review Week” to learn more! One of the activities coming up on September 21st is a no-cost online Seminar “How to Get Published” webinar on navigating the peer review process! Many of the activities and resources that will appear are yet to be announced, so watch the peer review website to learn more.

*Our series of posts “Mysteries of Publishing” addresses the the process of communicating the knowledge of the discipline through scholarly journals and books. Contemporary nursing scholars are actively involved in developing ideas that will begin to appear in the nursing literature in the months and years to come. This series explains how that happens!

3 thoughts on “Responding to Peer Review

  1. Peer review is hard work. It takes time and effort to put forth constructive comments in order to make it a better read. I do peer review for three journals and I love doing that. It gives me an opportunity to see where the research is flowing.

  2. Pingback: What Do Editors Do? | Nursology

  3. Pingback: Due Diligence: Sifting the Dependable from the Dubious | Nursology

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