After you submit your manuscript to the journal you have selected, you will wait for a period of time before hearing from the editor. This period could be anything between a few days to a few months. When you do hear, there are a few possible outcomes. The editor may decide quite quickly that the subject matter of your manuscript is not within the scope of the journal, or may feel that there are methodological flaws that affect the quality of the research you are reporting. For reasons such as this the editor may soon respond to you stating that the manuscript is not suitable for publication, and with a brief explanation of the reason for rejection. Alternatively, if the editor considers that the manuscript is within the journal’s scope and is of at least acceptable quality, he or she will usually send it out to two reviewers with relevant expertise. The reviewers will critically read it, looking for indicators of the quality of research and writing, including your literature review, aims, methods, statistical analysis, presentation (e.g. figures) and interpretation of results. This process often takes some time, but most journals have a system which allows online tracking of progress, so you will be able to see whether your manuscript is still under review, in which case you will need to be patient and wait for the outcome!
Once you receive a response from reviewers, you may find that they have recommended that the manuscript should be rejected for any of a number of reasons related to its quality, particularly related to the research methods. Clearly this is a disappointing outcome, but it is a common one and in a sense it should be welcomed because the reviewers and editor will be offering very helpful advice and guidance which will ultimately improve the research and the manuscript. Try to read their comments objectively, do not take them personally, and do think about them. It is often easy to misinterpret a written message, and important points may be missed if you do not read and re-read them carefully.
In addition, bear in mind that there are several possible factors influencing the response you receive. While the primary factor is likely to be quality of the research and the writing, the decision will have been influenced to some extent by the viewpoints of the reviewers, the current interest of the readership (topics that are widely discussed in the field at this time), whether the journal has recently published on this topic (a recent publication may have raised interest, or there may have been a glut of papers on this topic) and the journal’s current need for papers to publish (they may have too many or too few to choose from). There are also conscious or unconscious biases on the part of the reviewers. In many cases, journals send manuscripts to reviewers with the authors’ details, so the reviewers are aware of who they are and of their institution. The reviewers may have great respect for the authors, or not, and this is likely to influence their view and their response.
The response may, however, indicate that the journal would like to continue to consider your manuscript for publication, subject to revisions. These may be described as minor or major, depending on how much time the journal anticipates you would need to complete them. The editor and reviewers will each provide comments about the manuscript in some degree of detail, indicating what aspects you need to address with revisions. You will be given time to make these changes and re-submit the manuscript.
When you are ready to re-submit, you will need to describe the changes you have made and exactly where you have made them in the revised manuscript. It is helpful for the reviewers if you indicate the changes using ‘Track Changes’ in Word or using highlighting, for example, so that they can see what you have removed and added to the text. It is important that you have addressed all of the reviewers’ and editor’s points one by one, and the clearest way to present this is probably as a table stating the point, the change you have made and where it can be found (page and line number) in the revised version. There may be some points on which you disagree with the reviewer, and in this case you should not make the change they have indicated, and instead in the table you should explain why you have not done so. For example, the reviewer may have indicated that you should include a particular piece of previous research in your discussion or introduction, but you might not feel the research is sufficiently relevant, and in this case you should explain your reason for not making that revision. Normally, however, all or most of the reviewers’ and editor’s suggested revisions would be made.
See the separate blog on this site titled ‘Tabulated response to reviewers’ for an example of the type of response format described above.
Finally, it is possible that when you initially submit your manuscript you may receive a response indicating that it will be accepted for publication without revisions. This is a very rare occurrence, though, so as a rule you should expect either revisions prior to acceptance, or rejection. Again, in either case the comments you receive will be very useful and will help you to develop a better quality piece of work.