Peer Review in Research: A Comprehensive Guide

Read this article to learn more about the peer review process in research publication. From why peer review is done to how peer reviewers look at a manuscript, this article will provide all the basics you need to know for successfully navigating the research writing process.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. The research publication process
  3. What is the objective of peer review?
  4. What is the difference between a journal and a peer-reviewed journal?
  5. Understanding the peer review process
  6. Other advice for handling peer review


Within the scholarly community, published research resides at the end of a major research cycle. Research journal articles are part of the established scientific knowledge that provides the foundation for future research and scholarship. As a result, a robust peer review process is of the utmost importance to ensure a research manuscript can adequately contribute to that knowledge.

The peer review process ensures that published research is robust and of significant interest to researchers.

The research publication process

Scientific peer review is just one stage in a process long established by academic journals. When an author makes an article submission to a journal, the editorial board examines the article to determine if it is of interest to the journal and its scientific community. This stage of the scholarly publishing process is necessary to ensure the author reaches the appropriate audience.

Submissions that pass this stage then undergo peer reviewing to ensure the article's quality and its contribution to scientific knowledge. Papers at this point can either be rejected or accepted for publication, but often they are referred back to the author for revision alongside feedback from reviewers regarding how to improve the research.

A successful submission often goes through one to three cycles of peer review before the peer reviewers agree on its inclusion in the journal. At that point, a final round of revisions based on feedback from copyeditors gives the author a chance to fix any mistakes or omissions owing to their own writing style and ensure that the quality of the academic writing is acceptable.

What is the objective of peer review?

Even the most specialized peer-reviewed journals can include research articles on a broad range of topics, all of which the members of an editorial board may not intimately know about. An editorial office can thus delegate the task of reviewing manuscripts to peer reviewers. These are reviewers who are familiar with the specific research area explored by a given manuscript and are uniquely qualified to provide useful feedback to the authors as well as inform the editor's decision to accept or reject the paper for publication.

Specifically, peer review works to validate or challenge the theory, methodology, and findings of a submitted manuscript. Not only must a quality research paper make a novel contribution to scientific knowledge, it must also present that contribution in a manner that is transparent and rigorous. Rigorous research that isn't novel is of little interest to the greater research community, while novel research that isn't rigorous is bad science altogether. As a result, the peer reviewer's responsibility is to serve the research audience's interest and uphold the basic principles for quality scientific research.

In a way, peer review improves published papers by providing feedback on the original submission and guiding researchers on the best practices for presenting their research. Seldom does a paper reach the publication stage without some feedback from knowledgeable peers.

Peer review improves the research process by ensuring studies are rigorously examined and refined. Photo by Scott Graham.

What is the difference between a journal and a peer-reviewed journal?

To be sure, not all research publications are peer-reviewed. The vast majority of journals out there will require some form of review, but there are publications like conference proceedings, university bulletins, and research repositories that simply serve as places for researchers to present research merely to gather feedback from colleagues and other interested peers. A peer-reviewed journal, on the other hand, is a confirmation of the rigor and quality of the study presented to readers. With a peer-reviwed study, readers know that knowledgeable experts have examined and critiqued the research and the authors have incorporated the feedback into their paper.

Readers are more likely to cite papers from peer-reviewed journals knowing that they are citing quality research that has been conducted in a rigorous manner. In turn, it is usually in a researcher's interest to pursue publication in a peer-reviewed journal rather than in other forums.

Understanding the peer review process

The peer review system likely differs between journals depending on a variety of factors including research field, technical processes, and the personal preferences of editors and peer reviewers. As a result, authors should be prepared for variations in the peer review process that make every submission process different from manuscript to manuscript.

Who are the peer reviewers?

Peer reviewers are almost always perceived experts in the research areas relevant to your manuscript and the journal you are targeting. Most often, they are in the same field as the researchers submitting the paper, but peer reviewers can often include researchers from adjacent fields who are familiar with the methodology or the ancillary scholarship in the literature review.

You should check whether your targeted journal adopts a traditional peer review model or conducts an open peer review process, in which case reviewers and authors know each other's identities.

How long does peer review take?

For prestigious scholarly journals, authors should expect a range of 1-3 months between the time submitted articles are sent to reviewers and the time peer review reports are expected. While experiences will vary, authors should expect their papers to undergo at least two rounds of revision with peer review and one round of copyediting before publication. The quality of a given manuscript will, of course, affect the steps in this process, either shortening or lengthening the overall publication process.

Different journals will also vary in their publication time based on countless factors. As a result, many reputable journals will list the average review time and the expected time from submission to final publication on their website or in their communications with authors. Any submission process that surpasses these times usually encounters issues that the editor should address, meaning that the author should always contact a journal when they feel their manuscript is being held up for some unforeseen reason.

What happens during the peer review process?

One or two reviewers examine the manuscript they are given within the recommended period of time and write up a report with their feedback. In some cases, editors may even involve more than two reviewers. The reviewers' comments are then submitted to the editors, who decide whether to reject a paper, approve it for publication, or forward the comments to the authors for revision of their manuscript.

Some journals may also provide reviewers with a rubric or score sheet to evaluate the manuscript. A score might give the editor a clearer idea on the quality of the paper as well as what aspects of the paper require revision. A rubric also provides the means for standards to judge whether a paper meets a journal's expectations.

In most cases, the first round of peer review will likely result in the editors recommending revision based on the reviewers' feedback. If the paper is not relevant to the journal or has some fundamental flaws, it may be rejected on the first pass, and seldom is a paper approved for publication right away. If the editor sees potential in the paper, the author will receive the feedback from reviewers (anonymized by the editors) and make revisions accordingly. Authors are expected to make revisions within a certain period of time or withdraw their submission, either to restart the submission process or begin again with a different journal.

When the editorial office receives the revised submission, they may decide that the paper is ready for publication, but they will more often defer to peer reviewers in a subsequent round of feedback. At this point, they can rely on the same reviewers who will determine if the authors have sufficiently revised their paper to meet the standards of the journal and of rigorous research. Sometimes, editors will also call upon other reviewers who have yet to see the paper to get a fresh angle on the study with new feedback. The process thus repeats until the editor thinks the paper can be published or should be rejected for not adhering to reviewers' feedback.

Some of the common reasons manuscripts are rejected

Rejection of a manuscript can occur for any number of reasons. The most common are listed below:

  • Lack of novel contribution. Sometimes research studies can replicate knowledge by producing the same results that previous studies have already generated. While replication studies and confirmatory studies are important aspects of research, peer-reviewed journals tend to place a prestige value on research that is novel by producing new insights or conducting analysis in novel ways. Most peer review feedback in such cases will point out existing studies that make the research being reviewed superfluous or unnecessary.
  • Absence of background knowledge. Research is built on existing scientific knowledge as much as it facilitates the creation of new knowledge. A robust research study relies on a rigorous literature review that surveys the existing knowledge relevant to the research question at hand as well as a synthesis of the literature that identifies any knowledge gaps that justify the research presented in the paper. A peer reviewer can reject a paper for the lack of such a literature review, or if they can point to any studies that the author has overlooked.
  • Questionable methodology. Determining the presence of rigorous research in any given manuscript starts with the methodology that produces its findings. Peer reviewers will often ask if the research methods used to collect and analyze data are sufficiently described by the authors and if those methods are appropriate to the research questions posed and the analysis conducted. Without a sufficient explanation of the methodology, peer reviewers and the research audience will undoubtedly raise questions about whether the findings were credibly generated.
  • Poor writing style. Bad writing, whatever the agreed definition may be, is not as common a reason as some authors may believe, but papers may be sent back if they are unclear or otherwise unreadable. This may be true for authors whose first language is not the language of the journal to which they are submitting their manuscript. In most cases, however, if the research is sound and credible enough for publication, copyediting after the peer review stage will clear up any ambiguities or fix any major mistakes before publication.

How to respond to reviewer comments

Incorporating feedback into your manuscript should be twofold: revision of the paper itself and a detailed response to your peer reviewers. The first is a given, but the second is just as essential to the peer review process as it communicates to reviewers and editors that you are conscientiously considering the comments they have made on your paper. Unless you are instructed otherwise, ensure that you are using the proofreading mode in your word processor (e.g., Track Changes in Microsoft Word) when revising your paper. This will enable the reviewers to see any changes made to the text, particularly when text is added or deleted. This will also enable you to keep track of what parts of the paper you have changed to respond to peer reviewers.

In the peer review process, you are also often expected to attach a separate document with your response to peer reviewers to your revised manuscript. This is a point-by-point description of each of the reviewers' comments and your response, whether you have revised your paper to reflect their feedback or if you have a rebuttal that directly critiques their comments.

What if you don't agree with the reviewers' comments?

Peer reviews are intended as instruments in a scholarly discussion rather than straightforward sets of instructions for revision. Naturally, you should try to revise your article in a way that more closely aligns with the expertise of the research community by incorporating reviewers' comments into your manuscript.

That said, you may come across a comment or critique that you disagree with. It is perfectly legitimate to rebut any feedback that you feel does not fit the direction of your paper. Usually this means that your objective is to review and revise the argumentation you have presented in your paper to make it more clear to your reviewers.

In other cases, the feedback may reveal a disagreement about the theories or methodology being used. At this point, disagreement over feedback should not be based on personal opinion alone (e.g., simply asserting that your decisions regarding study design are better than what the reviewers suggest). Your response to reviewers' critiques will be more compelling if it is accompanied by supporting evidence and examples, either in the existing scholarship or from the data in your research. In either situation, the more detail you provide in your response to feedback will only strengthen your case regarding the quality of your study and resulting paper.

Whatever you decide, it is important not to consider peer review as some kind of test or evaluation of your skills as a researcher. Like with a dissertation defense or a scholarly presentation, discussion of a manuscript being considered for publication should be taken as a conversation aimed at improving the quality of your paper and contributing to scientific knowledge. Authors should take care to respectfully respond to peer reviewers without judgment or frustration, as failure to conscientiously consider feedback can interfere with the peer review process and delay or prevent publication.

Think of peer review as a conversation with other scholars regarding your work. Photo by Kaitlyn Baker.

Other advice for handling peer review

Peer review can be a long and daunting process. As a result, it helps to keep the following in mind:

  • Maintain constant communication. It doesn't hurt to contact the editors when you feel the peer review process is taking longer than expected. After all, a published paper requires a timely process of gathering feedback and incorporating revisions. To that end, make sure that your emails to the editors are respectful while you advocate for pushing for progress on your journal submission.
  • Read the journal's articles. One of the goals of scientific publication is to ensure engagement among scholars. As a result, editors may be more inclined to approve submissions that include citations from the journals they administer. When writing your manuscript and making revisions, it is a good idea to see if the journal you are writing for has articles you can use to address any current and potential critiques.
  • Conduct peer debriefing for feedback. The best way to brainstorm appropriate responses to feedback is to ask fellow colleagues. Peer debriefing is an important part of the research process that, at this stage, can bring in knowledgeable experts that can adequately address feedback pointing to any potential flaws in your manuscript.
Discussion among peers can be particularly useful in getting a journal submission approved. Photo by Redd F.