Lessons from the journal editorial office: Can I make changes to a paper once it’s been submitted? 

Yesterday I received an email from an author who’d just submitted a paper to our journal.

Dear Dr Dyke: I’ve noticed some mistakes in my submitted article. Is it possible for me to make some changes and send you a new version? How can I do this?

This is actually quite a common question. But the process is not so simple as you might think; once a paper has been formally submitted to a journal for editorial and peer review, changes are quite hard to make. Our usual response to authors in this situation is ‘how many changes do you want to make and how serious are they? Is the paper actually factually incorrect?’ Making changes after submission requires us to withdraw the paper from consideration in the journal and then for the author(s) to make a resubmission; not impossible but quite a long-winded process. If changes are going to be minor (spelling mistakes, for example) then these can be made later; we usually tell authors in such situations that the best course of action is to wait for their articles to come back from peer review and then make changes during the revisions process.

Sometimes (not often, but sometimes) papers are actually withdrawn from the submission system by authors because serious issues have arisen and changes need to be made before they are put back into the system again. This is bad from several perspectives including that the authors now look quite careless from the editor’s point of view (an editor will be asking: ‘why did you submit an article with mistakes?’ ‘why did you not check your paper thoroughly before submission?’). As an author, you want to maximise your chances of publication success and so should be aiming to impress editors and make them feel good about your work, not make them worry that your work is not up to scratch.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that any changes to articles have to be approved by all contributing authors; maybe you’ve noticed when you submit an article through a journal online system that one of the many boxes you have to tick is one that says something along the lines of ‘confirm that this submitted version has been seen and approved by all authors’.

This is not a trivial question. You’d be surprised how often we get emails from authors whose names have appeared on published papers but who don’t agree with the contents or, in some extreme examples, did not even realise that they were on the paper in the first place. It happens. Papers might have to be corrected, or even retracted, in such extreme situations. Online journal submission systems have removed this issue to a significant extent because contact details and emails of all contributing authors usually have to be entered during the submission process these days. It’s common to receive an automated email if you are named as an author on a submitted paper that contains a link to click to ‘confirm participation’ in the work in question.

Here’s a story from my PhD days working in the UK that illustrates well why journals have opted to do this. I remember sitting in the tea room with a senior colleague who was casually flicking through the pages of Nature. He came across one paper, an article about the movement capabilities of a small dinosaur and then jumped up out of his seat: he was listed as an author alongside five or six other workers and this was the first time he had known! Apparently he had recently visited the lab of the lead author on the paper in question and had provided some advice and comments on this particular project. He had then been included as an author on the paper, but no-one had bothered to let him know. People often tend to feel that the inclusion of a ‘big name’ on one of their papers can improve its chances of eventual acceptance, but you always have to let them know! In this case, the journal was asked to publish a short note correcting the authorship. Remember that being listed as an author on an academic article implies a significant intellectual contribution.


If you have questions about academic writing, authorship, or contributions to papers then Charlesworth can help. Our training courses (which can be booked via institutions), online materials, and blog articles contain numerous tips and tricks to help you navigate the academic publishing journey and maximise your potential as a researcher. Our world-class English language editing services are designed to support your wider research and writing; why not get your work edited and pre-reviewed by one of our PhD-level specialists working on the same research field as you? Find out more at www.cwauthors.com.

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