Peer review process and editorial decision making at journals
The peer review process for journal publication is essentially a quality control mechanism. It is a process by which experts evaluate scholarly works, and its objective is to ensure a high quality of published science. However, peer reviewers do not make the decision to accept or reject papers. At most, they recommend a decision. At peer-reviewed journals, decision-making authority rests solely with journal editors or the journal’s editorial board. Indeed, it is the journal editor who is considered to be central to the decision-making process.1
Journal decision-making process
Typically, after a paper is submitted to a journal, a journal editor screens the manuscript and decides whether or not to send it for full peer review. Only after clearing the initial screening is the manuscript sent to one or more peer reviewers. Finally, journal editors or the journal’s editorial board consider the peer reviewers’ reports and make the final decision to accept or reject the manuscript for publication.
Approximately 3 million manuscripts are submitted to journals every year.1 Given the large volume of manuscript submissions, more and more journals follow a policy of screening papers before sending them for full peer review. During the initial screening, journal editors mainly check the following:
Once a manuscript clears the initial screening, it is sent for peer review.
There are three common types of peer review for journal publication:
- Single blind: names of reviewers are not revealed to authors
- Double blind: names of reviewers and authors are not revealed to each other
- Open peer review: Names of authors and reviewers are revealed to each other
Editors’ decision-making policies vary: some reject when even one peer reviewer recommends rejection, some when the majority recommend rejection, and some only when all reviewers recommend rejection.2
It is common for peer reviewers to give conflicting feedback on the same manuscript.8,9 One journal editorial went as far as to say “Unanimity between reviewers is rare.”10 In cases of conflicting feedback, the journal editor may choose to send the paper to a third reviewer before arriving at a decision, and the author may have to wait longer for the peer review process to be completed.
In reality, reviewers tend to recommend acceptance more often than rejection.10 Thus, journal editors end up rejecting many papers that peer reviewers actually recommended for publication, with their decisions based on their own opinions of the papers’ publication worthiness. The role of peer review is considered to be helping authors improve their manuscripts rather than deciding whether they should be published, which is the journal editor’s job.
Because of a large number of submissions, top-tier journals are often forced to reject even high quality manuscripts for various reasons, like a large number of submissions or lack of fit with the journal’s editorial focus.2 While reviewers and editors easily agree on what is clearly not acceptable for publication, deciding what is worthy of publication is a tougher challenge.12 Finally, journal editors make decisions to accept or reject papers based on their opinion of the papers’ publication worthiness and reviewers’ comments.10
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