Submitting your paper

You have worked through your list of journals, investigating all your criteria and found the journal that is best suited to your paper and the goals you have for it. It is now time for you to submit!

In this section, we will prepare you for what to expect when submitting to a journal, give some insights into the peer review process, how to respond to requests for revisions and resubmit a paper, and what steps to take should you receive a rejection decision.

Submitting a paper

Make sure you have prepared your paper according to the instructions for authors. Double-check the journal’s requirements with your article to be certain.

If you need to include a cover letter with your submission, you should address the editor by formal name (e.g. Dear Professor Name---) and include the name of the journal but make sure you use the correct one (especially if this is your second-choice journal)!

In the letter, explain why your article is suitable for that journal and how your paper will contribute to furthering its aims & scope. Pitch the value of your article, describing the main theme, the contribution your paper makes to existing knowledge, and its relationship to any relevant articles published in the journal. You should not repeat the abstract in the letter. Include information not typically mentioned in a manuscript.

You may also be requested by the journal to suggest some reviewers for your paper. Good sources for these include authors cited in your references and editorial board members from the journal, or from other journals in the field. You should not suggest anyone that you would have a conflict of interest with, such as co-workers.

You should also make some formal declarations regarding the originality of your work, that you have no conflicts of interest, and that all co-authors (if you have any) agree to the submission.

The review process

As we discussed in the earlier module on peer review, there are a wide range of timeframes over which your review process may be conducted.

It may take several months for the journal to complete the review process, which typically involves:

  • Reading the article and deciding whether to send it for review.
  • Acquiring sufficient reviewers and receiving all feedback.
  • Assessing the reviews and rendering a decision on the paper.

Acquiring reviewers and then receiving those reviews back is the longest part of the process. It is very much dependent on the availability of academics, and is not an especially predictable process.

Journals which use web-based reviewing platforms often feature a status for each submission that authors can check. If this status has not changed for some time, in most cases, you will be able to send the journal administrator or editor an email. Some journals make their review times publicly available, giving you a good idea of how long their process might take, and when it may be appropriate to ask for an update. If you do not know what to expect, we suggest waiting around 2 months before asking for an update.

Desk reject

Hopefully you will have submitted your article to the perfect journal, exactly as they have requested, and your article will be sent for reviewing. However, some papers are rejected without being sent for peer review – this is commonly known as a desk reject – and of course, you want to avoid this happening to your paper.

To help you understand and minimise the risk, here are some of the most common reasons for desk rejection:

Technical Screening
  • Language or writing issues which make it too hard for the editor to understand the paper.
  • Similarity checking revealing a large amount of exact matching or plagiarised content.
  • Failure to comply with Instructions for Authors, e.g.
    • Formatting is not in the journal style
    • Word count is too high
    • Figures & Tables are incomplete or difficult to read
    • References are incomplete
Aims & Scope and Content
  • Outside Aims & Scope.
  • Hypothesis or purpose is not sufficiently clear.
  • Methods are unclear or flawed.
  • Results do not support conclusions.
  • Incremental addition to knowledge.
  • References miss key or recent literature.

Similarity (plagiarism) checking

Many journals conduct some form of checking of article text to go alongside the reviewing of papers. Software such as iThenticate, Turnitin, PlagScan, among many others, are used either to look for similarities in text between the submitted article and published material available online.

These platforms cannot, by themselves, determine whether text has been plagiarised, only provide a score of how similar passages of text are to existing material. For this reason, these programs tend to be referred to as ‘similarity checker’, not ‘plagiarism checker’.

Papers which are processed and return high scores are likely to be investigated to determine whether the similarity does appear to be deliberate plagiarism. How a journal deals with such a paper depends on their own policies and procedures, and the extent of the plagiarism detected.

Many journals will refer to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) Guidelines and Flowchart for dealing with “Suspected plagiarism in a submitted manuscript”. See our module on Ethics and Malpractice Statements for more detail on COPE and journal ethics.

These similarity checking programs may be used at different stages of the process, depending on journal policy and situation. Some journals may screen all papers on submission, some only when some concerns are raised by the editor on first read or by referees during review.

Receiving a decision after peer review

Once the editor has received all comments, feedback and recommendations from the reviewers, they will make a decision on the paper. These decisions may be called by different terms, but will usually fit into one of four categories:

  • Accept – it is very rare than a first submission will be accepted outright, without any changes being requested.
  • Revisions likely to result in acceptance – This can be a ‘minor revisions’ decision, or a more major revision, but in both cases the editor shows positivity towards a final acceptance.
  • Revisions with an uncertain outcome – Often referred to as ‘major revisions’, or ‘reject, revise and resubmit’, these decisions request extensive revisions, reinterpretations of information, or deeper, more thorough explanations of details, which ultimately may not be acceptable for the journal even when responses to all reviewer comments have been provided.
  • Reject – The paper is unsuitable and/or unacceptable for the journal in this form, or any alternate version. With a reject decision, a revision is not invited, and should an author resubmit the paper as a new version, it may be immediately rejected.

Revisions

If you are invited to revise your paper, make sure you are methodical in your approach to tackling the revisions requested by the editor.

  • Read the letter and put it aside for a day or two. However well-framed the reviewer’s comments and criticisms of your paper, there is always a chance you may feel protective over the original paper you spent so much time writing. It is not always easy to receive criticism, so don’t rush to take action immediately.
    Give yourself a few days to digest the reviewer comments before taking the next steps with your revision.
  • In most cases, it is likely that you will be able to follow the recommendations of the reviewers.
  • Everyone may develop their own preference and styles in approaching revisions, but here are some commonly used methods you can try, individually or in combination, to find a format which best suits you:
    • Organising the reviewer comments by ease of response or your ability to complete. For example, on a spectrum of requested revisions, spelling and grammar corrections would be at the easiest end, through to conducting extra experiments at the more difficult (or impossible) end.
    • Numbering each of the comments from each reviewer.
  • Taking a structured approach to revisions will also make it easier to respond. You will need to include a point-by-point response letter, detailing how you have addressed each reviewer point.
    You do not need to perform every change requested of the reviewers, but you should provide a response as to why you have not done so. It may be that reviewers request conflicting things, or the additional experiments they suggest are not possible.
  • If you disagree with a comment made by one of the reviewers, try to provide an evidence-based explanation in your response.
  • Try to complete your revisions by the requested deadline. If you think you will need longer, let the journal know. They will probably be happy to grant you the extension, and it is courteous to keep them updated. In addition, some online review platforms may prevent you from submitting your revision once the due date expires, so asking for an extension will avoid this problem too.
  • Once your revisions are complete and you have detailed all your responses in your letter, check with any co-authors that they are all happy with the final versions before re-submitting to the journal.
  • For journals with online submission forms, be sure to submit as the revision of your original article so that it is easy for the editorial office and Editor to follow. Amend any relevant fields (such as title, abstract) that have changed during your revision process, provide related cover letters, revised manuscript files and reviewer response letter in the appropriate places in the forms.
  • Revisions may be sent to the previous reviewers to re-assess, or the Editor may make a decision independently. In some cases, new reviewers may be sought.
    As with the first submission, once all reviews have been submitted, the Editor will make a decision from the same set of categories and hopefully your paper will be accepted in just one or two rounds of resubmission.
    Some very strict journals will not invite a second speculative revision, but others may be more lenient and continue to invite revisions until the editor is satisfied of a decision to either Accept or Reject.

Rejection

Having a submission rejected from your first-choice journal is something of an inevitability - every researcher has been rejected at some point in their careers. Even some of what we now consider ground-breaking and foundational studies were rejected from their first-choice journals. Hans Krebs' paper on citric acid cycle - the Krebs cycle – was rejected from Nature in 1937, and Kary Mullis’ first paper on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was rejected from Science in 1993, before going on to win the Nobel Prize. Rejection happens, quite literally, to the best of us.

If this should happen to you, try not be too disappointed. It does not mean there is no future for your paper. As with our revision recommendation, set aside the letter once you have read it and give yourself some time before tackling it.

When you are ready to proceed with your paper, consider the following steps:

  • From your shortlist of suitable journals for your paper, you might now consider your second-choice journal.
  • Another option to consider may be ‘Cascade Journals’. Some publishers now offer a chance to publish in a ‘Cascade journal’. These are usually open access titles, published by the same organisation. Some Cascade journals will require payment of an Article Processing Charge (APC). You may or may not be offered a reduced rate as part of the transfer to the related title. It is likely that the journal will transfer the reviews received at your first-choice journal to the ‘cascade journal’. This is intended to speed up the review process, or may mean the editor does not have to conduct any reviewing at all, but it does not guarantee acceptance at this journal. The editor will still need to make a decision as to whether your paper is suitable for the journal.
  • When you submit to a new journal, it is good practice to revise your paper according to the reviewer comments you received, as much as possible in the same way as you would if resubmitting to the same journal.
    Do not assume that the comments received from one journals’ reviewers are relevant to that journal only.
    Firstly, it is likely that the comments the reviewers provided will help you improve aspects of your paper such as focusing the aims and purpose of your paper, sharpening the inferences made from your results, fine tuning the message you wish to convey, or improving the readability among many other positive edits.
    Secondly, even in reasonably large research fields, there is a chance that the same reviewers who saw your paper at the first journal will be asked to review it at the new journal. It will not reflect favourably on you if you have not acknowledged or considered any of their comments from the first round of reviews.
    When submitting the new version of your paper to your second journal, there is no need to include a letter responding to the original reviewers’ comments.
  • Check that the format of your paper meets the submission criteria of the new journal and make the appropriate amendments (remember, failure to comply with a journals Instructions For Authors is one of the most common causes of immediate rejection).
  • If you wish, write a cover letter to the new journal, explaining the relevance of your paper to the journal, and be sure to address the correct journal editor and journal name.
  • Complete your new submission to the journal.

Acceptance

After acceptance, you will usually be required to sign copyright or licensing documents, to give the publisher the rights to publish your article. Be sure to read these documents thoroughly to understand what you are signing.

If you would like to publish your article Open Access, Article Processing Charges are usually requested at this stage, and go hand-in-hand with the license you select, if such options are available.

Accepted papers are usually sent to a production team to format into journal style. Some have dedicated professional typesetters, copyeditors and proof-readers. For some journals, the Editors may contribute to these roles.

Some journals publish the Accepted version online within just a few days, to make it officially available before the final ‘Version of Record’ journal-styled PDF is made available.

Some journals publish articles online as soon as they are ready, into a queue of early publication manuscripts. Other journals hold all articles offline until each issue is full and publish each issue according to a defined schedule (for example, 4 times per year).

There are many different ways in which publishers and journals manage their post-acceptance stages and publication schedules. If the information about your article is not provided to you, you may contact the journal office for an update.

These are some of the more common processes and procedures that you will encounter and come to rely on throughout your research publishing career, but there may be many more variations to deal with. The submission process can be a time-consuming, frustrating experience, but with these tips, and building up your own repertoire of tools, resources and techniques, you will soon master the arts of submission and peer review.

Good luck with all your future submissions!


Further resources you may find useful

< Go to previous module - instructions for authors

 

Back to the guide's homepage

Did you find this guide helpful?

Stay up to date with the latest tips on effective research and related topics

Make sure you don't miss our future articles, guides and webinars on these essential topics. Join the mailing list to receive an alert when we publish new content.

Subscribe via email