Peer Review Week 2016: The life of a research paper

Many of you may wonder what actually happens to your work once you hit that ‘submit’ button. What is the peer-review process? What does each stage involve? What do Editors actually do? We asked Editorial staff from across the Journal of Physics series about how we conduct peer review and hopefully there’ll be a lot less mystery surrounding the journey your papers take to being published.

Submission checks – Dean Williams, Editor Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics

When an article is submitted, the first thing we do is check that all the necessary information has been received, including whether the authors need permission to reproduce any previously published material. Later we’ll talk about how we make this process as easy as possible. We offer authors the chance to suggest referees and list anyone they would prefer not to review their work, due to a known conflict of interest – this helps our Editors select appropriate, unbiased reviewers.


Peer review animation. Copyright AJC1 under a CC BY 2.0 license.

The Editorial office will check whether an article is within the scope of the journal and written in clear English. Some of our larger journals also conduct a pre-refereeing quality assessment. If the journal has a particular requirement for articles to be of exceptionally high interest or urgency (for example, if the article is being submitted as a Letter), then submissions that do not appear to meet these criteria may be rejected at this point.

IOP Publishing has a large number of broad scope and specialist titles, and articles will often be more appropriate for another of our titles. If an article isn’t right for the scope of one of the JPhys series, it is possible to transfer it to another IOP title without having to go through the submission process again.

Once we’ve completed these basic check, it’s off to referees!

Selecting referees – Claire Fullarton, Associate Editor Journal of Physics G: Nuclear and Particle Physics

As Editors we have a huge database of potential reviewers at our disposal. Our main criteria for selecting referees for the paper include:

    • Independence – we avoid selecting referees with links to the paper that could lead to bias, such as being a former collaborator or from the same institution.
    • Expertise in relation to the topic of the paper – usually we search using keywords that authors have entered into their user account and make sure that these are relevant to the paper.
    • Previous reviewer history – this gives us a picture of how many papers you have reviewed for us or other IOP journals.
    • Availability – it is really important we do not overburden reviewers. We make sure that reviewers are available, aren’t currently considering an invitation for another paper and haven’t just returned a review or been contacted in the last 30 days.

Currently we use a ‘single blind’ peer review process, which means the referee knows who the author(s) are but the author(s) do not not know who has reviewed their article. There are many other forms of peer review though, as our post from last week, ‘What is Peer Review?‘ explains.

Once we have selected a number of suitable reviewers, several are invited. This process continues until two independent referees agree to review the paper. Then we wait…

Decisions, decisions, decisions – Jade Holt, Editor Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter

You might well have seen the counter on our homepage for all of the reports we have received across the JPhys titles so far this week. These reports are what guide us when making a decision about whether to publish your paper.

For all papers we obtain at least two referee reports, which are read by either an Associate Editor or an Editor of the journal. We try and obtain reports that provide you with constructive, unbiased comments so that your work can be improved. When these reports agree, we make a decision based on the reviewers receommendation; either the paper goes onto be revised or it is rejected.

Sometimes though, as you may have of experienced, it is possible that two peers disagree and our two initial referees provide conflicting recommendations. In this case, a third experienced reviewer is selected. This referee will be familiar with the standards and scope of the journal and is asked to act as an adjudicator. Across the JPhys series, we often turn to our Editorial Board Members to act as adjudicators because of their knowledge in their respective field, and their acute awareness of the standards required to be published in our journals.

Ultimately, across all of our titles we try and come to a fair decision backed by the recommendations of our reviewers in a timely manner. We use our Editorial Board to help guide us in situations where we cannot make a clear decision but also when we feel the authors have waited too long for an outcome. In some cases Editorial Board members act as our second reviewers. This means we can come to a decision and authors can go on to revise the paper based on the report.

Revised manuscripts – Tom Sharp, Associate Editor Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter

The primary aim of the revision process is to provide authors with an opportunity to improve their manuscript based on feedback from their peers. Once a manuscript is resubmitted after revision, it is typically returned to one or both of the referees from the first submission. The referees can then assess whether the manuscipt is now suitable for publication and if necessary offer more recommendations to the authors. If the revisions are relatively minor, such as spelling corrections or adjustments to figures, then the Associate Editor or Editor may accept the manuscript without further review to speed up the publication process. If any disagreements do arise between authors and referees, members of the Editorial Board will be consulted to provide adjudication.

What we do next – Tom Farrell, Associate Editor, Journal of Physics B: Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics

Once an article has been provisionally accepted the Editorial Assistants check that copyright forms have been filled out and that the authors have permission from other publishers for reproducing figures, if required. With this completed they pass it on to the Production department. Here the authors are asked to finalise the proof copies of their manuscripts to ensure they are happy with the content presented, and the proofs are checked through for spelling, grammar and formatting issues. Articles are typeset to make sure they look great in publication and the Production Editors publish the articles to IOPscience, our online platform where the final versions can be read. For those journals that also produce print copies, the Production department allocates articles to forthcoming issues and ensures those with colour figures are published correctly. Articles on IOP Science are ‘semantically’ tagged so that readers can easily find related content.

At this point, we look to promote the work of our authors further through a number of channels. Community websites and blogs such as JPhys+ (but also Environmental Research Web, CQG+, Nanotech Web and Medical Physics Web) post about interesting or exciting work and offer ways for readers to engage with the research and researchers in other ways. Many journals publish LabTalks – short summaries aimed at non-specialists written by authors on a recent paper of theirs, which are very highly read. Many of our journals are also on Twitter, and use this method to put the word out about articles they have published. Our marketing department press releases journal articles, and these can have an impressive reach, often ending up in national newspapers. Outstanding work may also be included in each journal’s Highlights collection at the end of the year. These are usually available to be read for free by anyone, to celebrate the achievements of this work and make them more accessible.

We hope this post leaves you more informed of the peer review processes that the Journal of Physics series operates. The role of peer review in science is an intergral part of our journals and we’re thankful to each individual, our authors, reviewers and Editorial Board members who help us take a paper from submission to publication.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Peer review animations sourced from AJC1 published under a CC BY 2.0 license.

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