How many peer reviewers should a manuscript be assessed by before a decision is made? Should editors have the option to request that authors revise and resubmit their manuscripts, and if so what should be the cutoff for rounds of revision before a manuscript is either accepted or rejected?

All journals must tackle these questions when they initiate and iterate on their peer review process. Unfortunately, there is no “right” answer. How you decide to structure peer review depends on what your editorial board is most comfortable with and which review method best fits the objectives and expectations of your journal. Though, most can agree that fewer rounds of peer review are preferable.

One of the best steps you can take as you ruminate over your peer review model and how to make it both effective and efficient is to consider those of other journals. Check out the peer review systems these 3 journals decided on and the benefits of each.

Screen manuscripts before you send them out for review

Regardless of how many reviewers assess your journal’s submissions, ultimately your editors are the ones who have to decide whether or not a manuscript is technically and substantively a fit for publication. So, rather than putting all manuscripts through a round of external review before having your editors assess them, why not initiate an initial peer review screening in-house?

Hank Fradella, editor-in-chief of Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society (CCJLS) shares the manuscript screening process his journal uses in Academic Journal Management Best Practices: Tales from the trenches.

At CCJLS all manuscript go through the same 4 screening steps:

  1. A volunteer graduate student working as a managing editor reviews the submission for any glaring mistakes, then makes an initial recommendation to one of the journal’s co-editors
  2. Taking the managing editor’s recommendation into account, one of the co-editors does a cursory review of the submission
  3. The co-editor either desk rejects the submission, makes a request for revisions, or sends the manuscript out for external review
  4. Manuscripts that go out for external review are subject to revise and resubmit requests at an editor’s’ discretion

CCJLS’s manuscript screening process helps the journal to decrease the number of peer review rounds most manuscripts will go through, because editors are able to weed out submissions that aren’t right for the journal from the start rather than putting all manuscripts through two rounds of review (external and internal). The addition of having graduate student managing editors do initial read-throughs before co-editors also saves time by spreading out the screening workload and quickly flagging subpar submissions that aren’t worth editors spending a lot of time assessing.

If you’ve had referees complain about the quality of submissions you’re assigning out for their review, you might want to consider how a simple preliminary screening could improve the quality of manuscripts you’re asking your reviewer network to evaluate.

Referee your revise and resubmit process

Regardless of whether your journal chooses to build manuscript screenings into peer review, you can benefit from Jeremy Fox, Associate Professor of Population Ecology at the University of Calgary and former editor of Oikos’ approach to revise and resubmits. A struggle of revise and resubmits that many authors lament is that rounds of revision can take a long time, particularly when reviewers continue to disagree on how revisions should be made spurring ongoing rounds of review.

While healthy debate is an important part of peer review, Fox reminds editors to keep in mind that reviewers can sometimes get caught up in tertiary arguments. Fox advises editors to read through reviewers’ comments before sending them back to the author in order to avoid potential areas of confusion or the author getting caught up in reviewer comments that aren’t a concern to the journal. For Fox, taking the time to help authors put reviewer requests in the context of the expectations of his journal helped him to cut down on unnecessary rounds of revision.

Avoid revise and resubmit requests and give external reviewers less work

Of course, it’s possible to not make revise and resubmit requests altogether. The editors of Sociological Science decided to do this by keeping peer review at their journal a strictly two-round process. First their journal’s editors review new submissions and then those that are not desk rejected are sent to external reviewers for outside opinion. Unlike other journals, Sociological Science relies more heavily on its editors than external reviewers to assess manuscripts. The journal has a large pool of qualified consulting editors that it calls upon to do thorough manuscript reviews and then simply asks its external reviewers to comment on whether a submission is good or bad and whether it has any obvious flaws in it, without the need to make lengthy substantive suggestions. Once a manuscript has gone through one round of internal and external review the journal’s editors make a final decision. While the journal’s editors will of course notify authors of any obvious mistakes that need to be addressed prior to publication and ensure that necessary edits are made, Sociological Science does not allow for additional rounds of review.

Jesper Sørensen, editor-in-chief of Sociological Science explains that the journal chose its review model to ensure a fast manuscript turnaround time and to avoid propagating the assumption that manuscripts can be perfected during peer review. Rather the journal focuses on ensuring its manuscripts do not have errors of omission and welcomes further review of published research via open commenting on the journal website.

We hope getting a window into the different review models of these journals helps you as you plan or reevaluate your journal’s peer review process. What are your thoughts on how many rounds of peer review a journal should have? We’d love to hear them on Twitter - just tweet them to @scholasticahq.

Danielle Padula

This post was written by Danielle Padula,
Community Development