A Step-By-Step Guide To The Peer Review Process
By Andra Mihali
Congratulations! You’ve worked hard for months or years on your research project, argued and agonized with your collaborators, tied together all (or most) of the loose ends, wrote the manuscript, submitted it to a journal, and now you have the enormous satisfaction of ….waiting.
Peer review can last between 6 months to 2 years. How do you endure this (agonizing) time?
Use preprint servers to share your work quickly. You don’t have to wait months or years for your work to reach your audience. You can post your manuscript on a preprint server (like arXiv, bioRxiv, psyArXiv) for quick visibility and useful comments. A good number of journals explicitly mention they allow prior publication in preprint form; however, when in doubt, email the editors of your target journal to check.
Start by submitting your work to an aspirational journal. Very specific journals dedicated to the topic of your work are a good bet, but before submitting there, it is worth first submitting your work to a “reach” journal, just like when you applied to college. While these journals tend to have lower acceptance rates, you never know what might capture the editor’s attention! At worst, you might still get valuable quick feedback.
Make the most out of your wait time. Once your paper is with the reviewers, you can move forward with the rest of your life. “Science is never done, but this one paper is for now,” my Ph.D. mentor once said. You can let this manuscript go from your working memory. After you catch up on sleep, Netflix and friends, you can devote yourself to the new exciting project you’ve been meaning to start. Your energy will be fresh and progress will feel fast, so enjoy this new beginning!
Await the reviews with curiosity and positivity. Remind yourself that the reviews will ultimately make the paper better. Other humans on this planet (who are not your co-authors) will have no choice but to read your manuscript thoroughly and with fresh eagle eyes. Knowledgeable people will engage with the paper and give comments that will be either validating of your concerns or bring a new way of thinking to your work. Furthermore, the reviewers might even help arbitrate debates with your co-authors.
If you find yourself obsessing over other possible analyses, models and experiments that you could have integrated in your paper – either remember this misguided perfectionism is not constructive or – if you deem these additions truly important, update your pre-print!
Check in with the editor if the reviews are taking longer than expected. Don’t be shy about asking about the status of your paper. If the editor did not mention a specific date by which you should expect the reviews, a general guideline is about a month. If you send an additional inquiry and do not hear back within a week, ask again politely. It reminds them that this is important to you.
You are not your paper. The reviewers might decide to reject your paper, but not you as a scientist. Do not conflate your identity with your paper! Revisions depend on many chance factors, and, as my postdoc mentor once noted, it is not optimal behavior to over-adjust your strategy based on feedback received from a few samples expected to be noisy (due to the inherent randomness of the review process). Sometimes reviews can be very harsh and critical. This is not the norm, but it is a possibility. Do not let this derail you. Take your time to recover from the disappointment, and then incorporate what you can from the feedback to make your next submission better.
Write your rebuttal. “Revise and resubmit” (R & R) is a great outcome. Do not get intimidated if you are asked to do “major revisions”; the major/minor labels can be pretty subjective. Reviewers are humans, so they appreciate that you hear their concerns with openness and embrace their suggestions. Show that you listened closely to all of their comments and update your manuscript accordingly. If the reviewers independently bring up converging points, address those thoroughly. But don’t make changes you don’t believe in: if you think one reviewer’s comments are based on a misunderstanding, or if they are beyond the scope of your paper, stand your ground.
It might take a few rounds of revisions and rebuttals, months spent alternating between more work and more waiting, hopes raised, dashed and raised again, but eventually your peer-reviewed paper will make it out into the world!
Andra Mihali is a postdoctoral fellow at the Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene studying the sources of variability in people’s perceptual experiences, as well as the decisions and interpretations they build based on those experiences.