Peer Review as We Know It

The peer-review process is a funny old beast. It’s an imperfect system that varies from journal to journal and everyone has an opinion on the best way to manage it: the authors should/shouldn’t be anonymous, the reviewers should/shouldn’t be rewarded, there should be a maximum of two reviewers, there should be a minimum of three… the list goes on.


But where does the concept of peer review come from – and just how long have we been deciding whether or not to publish new research in this way?


Just how old is it?

According to some sources, the concept can be traced back to ancient Greece; however it is more popularly attributed to Henry Oldenburg, the first editor of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London which launched in 1665 (fun fact – it’s still in print!). It would be roughly three centuries before peer review would really take off, however, with the academic editors making a judgement call themselves on whether or not to publish a paper. There is a famous story of Einstein being mortally offended when, in 1939, an academic editor had the audacity to consult with external reviewers on a paper he’d submitted without obtaining permission from him to share it prior to publication.


Why should deciding internally have been the norm for so long, however? Surely getting an independent set of eyes or two on new research makes sense – especially since the concept had been around for so long? Well, it may have made sense, but the problem wasn’t just cultural, it was practical.


It wasn’t so long ago that papers would have to be written on a typewriter, or even by hand. In order to be distributed, they would need to be copied out by hand. The reviewers would then need to be contacted by post and there was the danger of manuscripts/reviews being lost, thereby having to start the process of coping/sending all over again. In the majority of cases, it simply wasn’t feasible.


So what changed?

Distribution of papers amongst experts became a somewhat easier task (albeit still dependent on snail mail) with the invention of the Xerox machine. Which was just as well, as the expansion of scientific endeavours with new fields developing at an alarming rate during the 20th century, meant that it became increasingly difficult for academic editors to have enough of an overview of their fields to continue making judgment calls without seeking second opinions.


By the 1970s, external review was becoming the standard procedure, and the phrase “peer review” seems to have been coined at around this time. With the arrival of the internet – and, more importantly, email – the whole process became a far more streamlined proposition as we were now able to quickly and easily send files out to experts anywhere in the world without being at the mercy of the postage system.


More recently this has been taken one step further with most journals now running their peer review via an online submission system such as ScholarOne Manuscripts or Editorial Manager, much to the relief of those of us who remember running journals from an Excel spreadsheet. Although naturally a vast improvement on snail mail and filing cabinets, the spreadsheets/email system was not without its problems (but more on that here).


What’s next for peer review?

The interesting thing about the review process – be it external or internal – is that it’s always evolving to meet the needs of the scientific community, with new ideas being incorporated and new technologies being employed as and when they become available. So it’s hard to predict where it will go next – but we’re excited to find out!


Further reading

Peer Review – A Historical Perspective

A brief history of peer review

The Rise of Peer Review: Melinda Baldwin on the History of Refereeing at Scientific Journals and Funding Bodies

Features of Four Submission Systems

There are lots of submission systems available, all of which look wildly different but essentially do the same job – keeping all the information pertaining to your submission in one place where the editorial team can access it regardless of where they are in the world. For more information on why we use online systems to handle peer review, see our earlier post here.

At The Editorial Hub, our team predominantly works with online peer-review systems so they’re something we’re very familiar with. Here’s a quick introduction to some of our favourites!


ScholarOne Manuscripts (Clarivate)

ScholarOne (formerly Manuscript Central) is currently used by over 7,000 journals worldwide. If you’re involved in scholarly publishing in any way – be it as an author, reviewer, or editor – chances are you’ll have used ScholarOne at some point.

You know where you are with a ScholarOne system. The interface for authors and reviewers is fairly user-friendly with customisable instructions, and all the information that the editorial office needs is easily accessible. Generally speaking, ScholarOne is solid, dependable, and predictable – all good traits in a tool designed specifically to make life easier!


Editorial Manager (Aries Systems)

Also used by thousands of journals across the globe, Editorial Manager is a highly-configurable system “optimized to streamline editorial processes and communication”.

Editorial Manager has a lot of functionality and is very customisable. It also has some great menus that give you overviews of the manuscripts in progress grouped in various ways – e.g., by editor or by status – at the click of a button.


EJPress (eJournalPress)

As with the previous two, EJPress also has a lot of functionality and is “fully configurable”.

All manuscripts in progress are sorted into folders which are preceded by a big red arrow when they contain papers that are awaiting action. It has a folder containing all chasers – reminder emails for authors, reviewers, and editors – which means it’s easy for the administrator to keep an eye on all papers with overdue tasks, regardless of what stage of peer review the paper’s reached.


ReView (River Valley Technologies)

ReView is a relatively new system designed to be as user friendly as possible, with an intuitive interface that only shows users the information they need to carry out the task at hand.

One big plus for ReView is the native handling of LaTeX files, something which other systems can struggle with. It’s extremely customisable so you can tailor it to your team and their preferred workflow, and the reporting function is simple to use and provides real time data on anything you need to know.

Impact Factors

If you work in academia, you’re bound to be familiar with Impact Factors. You’ll probably know that “good journals” have an Impact Factor, and you may know that “really good journals” have a high Impact Factor. But do you know how Impact Factors are calculated? Or how journals are ranked? In short, do you know what an Impact Factor actually is?


If not, don’t worry. Consider this your Impact Factor 101.

An Impact Factor (IF) is, in essence, a fairly simple sum. A journal’s 2021 IF is calculated using citations received by that journal in 2021 for articles published in the previous two years (2019 + 2020), divided by the number of articles the journal published in those two years.

So, if in 2021 a journal received 13 citations to articles published in 2019 and 17 citations to articles published in 2020 (a total of 30) and published 35 articles over those two years; it would have a 2021 IF of 0.857.

The reason that only the previous two years are taken into consideration is simply to level the playing field. If you took into consideration citations to articles from a journal’s full history, then it would be extremely biased towards older journals who naturally have a far larger number of articles to choose from.

At the end of each year, the citations for each journal are counted and put into the Journal Citation Reports (JCR) which are published the following summer.


Which articles count towards an IF?

You have written an article published in a journal which is included in the JCR and, let’s say, it’s been published this year. Any citations your article receives next year or the year after will contribute towards the journal’s IF for those years.

Not everything published by a journal counts as “Article Content”, only Research Articles, Review Articles, Short Reports, etc. Editorials, Book Reviews, Letters to the Editor, etc, are not classed as Article Content so won’t be counted in the number of articles published. Any citations they receive the two years following publication will, however, be included in the citation count.


Alright, so what is a “good” or “high” Impact Factor?

The simple answer to that is the bigger the IF (i.e. the higher the number), the better it is. But, of course, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Different disciplines are likely to receive different levels of citations. For example, a scientific journal publishing up to the minute research in a fast-moving field is likely to receive more citations within the “IF window” (those two years after an article is published) than a humanities journal in a field which moves somewhat slower. An IF of 1.000 might be brilliant in one discipline, but be pretty poor in another.

To allow for this, journals are split into categories within the JCR and ranked within those. Therefore, rather than looking at their IF alone, to find the best journals within your field you should find the most relevant categories and see which journals rank highest within those.

For more information on the Journal Citation Reports (and Impact Factors, naturally), check out Clarivate’s website here.

Publishing Roles

When following your manuscript through from submission to acceptance, there are many different people and several different teams with whom you will come into contact. This can be confusing, to say the least!

So just who does what at each stage and, more importantly, who on earth are you supposed to go to if you have a question?!


The Managing Editor

That’s us – hello!

Sometimes referred to as an “Editorial Assistant” or “Journal Administrator”, the Managing Editor oversees the smooth running of the peer-review process. Our expertise is in the peer review-process itself, rather than the subject matter of the journal; we are the submission system’s “super users”, if you like. We keep an eye on everything to make sure that peer review runs smoothly and chase up anybody who needs it – authors, reviewers, even the editors sometimes! – allowing the academic editors to focus on the research.

You will hear from us every time you need to do something e.g., make some corrections, submit a form, or remember that you’ve got a revision deadline coming up…

The Managing Editor is your main point of contact for the journal during peer review, so anytime you have a question, it’s us you should email. Even if we’re not able to help you personally, we will know who to direct your query to.


The Editor-in-Chief

The Editor-in-Chief (EiC) is, as you would expect, the person in charge of the journal. He or she will be an expert with a broad overview of the journal’s field and will decide what content goes into the journal, how the peer-review process is run, and, to an extent, how the published content appears. How hands-on the EiC is differs journal to journal and EiC to EiC, but generally they will be the person making the final decision based on the recommendation of the reviewers and Associate Editors.

For most journals, it is best to get in touch with the Managing Editor and ask them to pass your comment or query on to the Editor-in-Chief rather than contacting them directly.


The Associate Editors

Mid-to-large journals tend to have a team of editors, rather than just one who deals with every submission personally.

There are many, many names for Associate Editors (on some journals they are even known as “Managing Editors”, just to confuse everybody) but they are the academic experts who aid the EiC by giving him or her their expert opinion and selecting reviewers for articles within their specialism.

A good editorial team of will have all of the niche subjects within the journal’s scope covered between them so that every manuscript submitted will have an expert eye cast over it, even if it’s slightly out of the EiC’s personal specialism.

How much the Associate Editors are able to assist with enquiries again varies, so The Managing Editor should still be your first port of call.

Data for Editors

An email lands in your inbox to let you know that an editorial board meeting is on the horizon and the editors want to see a report on submissions. And guess who has the joy of putting that together? Ah… it’s you.

If the thought of doing a submissions report makes you want to start banging your head on your keyboard, then get yourself a coffee and read our top tips for putting together reports for editors.


1. Know what the data you’re putting in the report relates to.

“Well, obviously I’m going to know what the data is about, I ran the report!” we hear you say – but are you sure? Is it relating to original submissions alone, or are revised submissions included in the figures? Is the date range relating to the submission or decision dates – or both?

For example, it’s not uncommon to find that the system has given you two reports which ought to be relating to the same set of manuscripts; but one of them totals to 78 manuscripts and the other to, say, 103.

When/as/if this happens, it’s important to understand why as you need to be able to explain this difference to your editor(s) – e.g., “the one with 103 includes revised submissions and the other doesn’t”.

Top Tip #1: Wherever possible, have a look at the raw data so you can check what has and hasn’t been included and always, always check that the figures on your charts match up.


2. Present the data in a way that’s clear and easy to understand.

Again, obvious, right? Well, not always. We’re all busy (understatement) so it’s easy to just copy/paste whatever charts and tables the system spits out in whatever format they happen to be in and consider the job done. But do they actually make sense?

Is the font that the system reports use clear and easy to read? Is the chart title something that your editor(s) will understand or just the name of the report that you’ve run? If the system’s presented the data in a pie-chart, is this the best way to analyse that data or would it be clearer in a bar-graph?

Taking a bit of time to reformat may be tedious but it will mean less confusion and fewer queries heading your way once the report’s been circulated – a win/win situation.

Top Tip #2: Try to view the report through your editor(s) eyes and present the data in a way that’s going to make sense to them.


3. Include information that your editor(s) will want to see.

Some editorial boards (and/or publishers) give very clear guidelines on what information they want to see in a report, but others just ask you to send them some data. If your editor(s) has(ve) been a bit vague, then we would suggest you include the following:


  • At-A-Glance Statistics – If you’re using ScholarOne, these give a great overview of the journal including the accept ratio for the last year, how many manuscripts are currently pending, and how long the oldest manuscript has gone without a decision.
  • Geographical Data – In our experience, editors love to see where in the world their submissions are coming from and what the geographical spread of accepted manuscripts is. So, unless your journal is very niche and only gets submissions from a small area, always include this information.
  • Submissions Received by Month – We would recommend that (unless anyone’s specified otherwise) you provide monthly submission figures for a period of at least a year, if not two. This will give a good indication of whether there’s been growth in the number of submissions, as well as showing which periods of the year tend to be quieter.
  • Editor Turnaround Times – If your journal is run by a team of editors, this can be a useful one to include as it will flag up if any of them are taking considerably longer than the others to get manuscripts to a point of decision. The Editor-in-Chief will want to be aware of this if they are!

Top Tip #3: Think about what data to include for your particular journal and your particular editor(s).

The Gentle Art of Reviewer Selection

Reviewer selection is arguably the most important part of an academic editor’s job; without good reviewers, the whole peer-review process grinds to a halt. So, if you are a good reviewer, I would like to take this opportunity to say, on behalf of editors and authors everywhere: Thank You!


What makes a good reviewer?

A good reviewer is somebody who reads the paper thoroughly, with an unbiased mind, and gives an honest opinion without being unnecessarily unkind to the authors or getting upset that their own work hasn’t been referenced enough (this happens more often than it should).

But the key thing that elevates someone to the ranks of a “good reviewer” is that they return their reviews on time. And, on the odd occasion that they can’t – things come up, life happens, it’s inevitable – they let the editorial team know. When it comes to the peer-review process, there is nothing worse than a reviewer who agrees to review a manuscript then disappears off the face of the earth.

For all we know, they could be busy crafting the greatest review academia has ever seen, but if it takes so long that the authors lose patience and withdraw their manuscript then it honestly doesn’t help anybody.


How do you find a good reviewer?

If you’re a new editor, you will probably start with your colleagues, your professional acquaintances, people who you know you can rely on to do a good job. But there comes a point when you have to take the plunge and start asking people who you don’t know so well – your colleagues aren’t available, it’s slightly outside of their specialism, they’ve already reviewed eight papers for you this month – so where do you begin to look for specialists who you’ve never bumped into at a conference?


1. The Editorial Board

If you’ve taken over the editorship of an established journal, then the Editorial Board should be your first port of call. The Board will almost certainly be made up of specialists from all over the world and often it is a condition of being listed as a Board member that they review a certain number of manuscripts for the journal. They are also a fantastic resource as they will know other experts in their particular field who they can recommend to undertake the review if/when they can’t do it themselves.


2. Your Reviewer Database

Again, this applies to established journals, but if peer review is run through an online submission system, then you will have a reviewer database at your fingertips. This database should be searchable by key word so you can, in effect, ask your system to suggest suitable candidates for you at the click of a button.


3. Advertise for Volunteers

We were recently talking to an editor who has a sign-up sheet on his journal’s homepage for people who wish to be considered as reviewers. He sends out regular emails containing the abstracts of submitted manuscripts and the reviewers on the list simply reply to volunteer for any they’d like to review. An unusual and ingenious tactic.


4. Ask Jane

Jane, or the Journal/Author Name Estimator, is an online tool which uses the title of a manuscript to search for relevant journals to submit it to, relevant articles to cite in it, and authors who’ve written on similar topics who might make good reviewers. In order to find these authors-of-similar-papers-who-might-make-good-reviewers, simply enter the title or abstract of the article in question in the box and click “Find authors”. She’ll then trot off to do a PubMed search and come back with a list of names and email addresses for you. If you’re struggling to find reviewers for a paper, we suggest you give her a go!