When peer review goes wrong: How to communicate with your target journal


One of the key issues that early career researchers (ECRs) face internationally is simply understanding the academic publishing process. ECRs often ask us questions like:

What happens, when and why in the publication process?

When can I talk with editors and journal managers and what can I say?

What if something unexpected happens to my manuscript, and how can I fix and address issues and problems?

Most of the time, of course, manuscripts are submitted, they get peer-reviewed and comments come back to authors; these are then addressed and the revised manuscript is returned to the journal and eventually published. Everyone is happy. Sometimes though, problems arise that are useful for everyone to be prepared for this scenario. What would you do if you faced such a situation?

How mistakes in the peer review process affect authors

Our team spoke to a medical researcher after one of our recent workshops in Beijing who was struggling to deal with an issue that had arisen with one of her papers. She had submitted to a leading journal who had sent her manuscript out for peer review. Comments had come back, which she felt she had addressed comprehensively. She was expecting the paper to move easily through the publication process once returned with changes. Unfortunately, the journal editorial office made a mistake at this point and sent back her original version (without any changes in response to first review) to the peer reviewers. At this point, journals often ask reviewers ‘do you think that all the changes you asked for in first review have been made? Is the paper now suitable for publication?’

In this case, accordingly, the reviewer actually recommended rejection because he thought that none of the changes asked for in the first review had been incorporated into this ‘new’ revision. The journal editor agreed and the paper was rejected. The poor author was very upset and asked us at the end of our workshop what to do. She simply did not feel able to write to the journal in question and explain the situation.

Problems like these are quite common: authors, especially ECRs, feel unable to write to journal editors or editorial offices to ask about their papers, to raise issues or appeal decisions that have been made about their work. Authors feel that to write to an editor directly would be a breach of protocol or inappropriate. Researchers often feel that they must simply accept the decision of a journal editorial board even if they disagree or, as in this case, have clearly been unfairly treated.

How we helped

The Charlesworth Knowledge team were able to help in this case. We sat down with the author and helped her to construct a polite but effective email to send back to the journal in question that explained the situation. They had made a mistake and her paper should still be considered for publication. What happened? Well, the journal head editor wrote back and apologized for their mix-up, the paper was reinstated in the submission system, re-reviewed and eventually accepted. A good outcome all round.

How we help authors navigate the many stages in research publication

In our Charlesworth Knowledge workshops (booked via institutions) we teach effective communication during the manuscript submission and publication process so you can avoid issues like this with your submissions. We explain how the peer review process works and what it means to be asked to make revisions to your manuscript. How can you respond when asked to make ‘minor’ or ‘major’ revisions to your articles and how you can maximise their chances of eventual acceptance. We provide English language templates for all stages of the manuscript submission and peer-review process that will help you to be as effective as possible.

The Charlesworth Knowledge training team conducts workshops around the world on all aspects of the publication process, including writing in English and how to successfully submit articles to journals. Our focus is on helping early-career researchers (ECRs) maximise their writing and publication potential and successfully steer their articles into the best possible journals. Our editing services can help here too: we have a large range of English editing, translation, pre-peer review, and journal selection services to help you get your work published as quickly and as effectively as possible.

If you have questions about academic writing in general, why not get in touch with one of our team at Charlesworth Author Services? We are particularly well positioned to help because our expert editing services are independent of publishing models. Our Premium Editing Service actually includes pre-peer review in which one of our PhD-level editors examine your article and provide suggestions and comments that are likely to come up in peer review. This service can save you considerable time: you can pre-empt the comments you are likely to receive from actual journal peer review and fix issues before submission. To find our more about this service, click here.

Charlesworth Knowledge training courses, online materials and blog articles contain numerous tips and tricks to help you navigate academic writing and maximise your potential as a researcher. Find out more at www.cwauthors.com.

Maximise your publication success with Charlesworth Knowledge.

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