How reviewers look at your paper – your top 9 questions answered

During a recent online webinar, Publisher Jaap van Harten explained how an understanding of the peer-review process can help authors be more successful

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As a scientist by training, Dr. Jaap van Harten has written and reviewedmany papers and as a Publisher he knows what it's like to sit on the other sideof the fence.

This dual perspective makes Jaap ideally placed to help authors developtheir publishing skills via the PublishingConnect training workshops he hosts at institutes worldwide. One of thetopics he regularly covers – how reviewers look at your paper – formed thebasis of a Publishing Connect webinarJaap presented online in October 2014.

The 792 attendees asked more than 200 questions. In this article, weexplore the answers to some of the most popular queries and Jaap shares his toptips for publishing success.

Q1. How do editors choose thereviewers for my paper?

Editors select reviewers based on their expertise on the topic of thepaper. Most journals ask authors, at submission stage, to suggest potentialreviewers which can really help the editor. However, you need to make sure thatthe reviewers you suggest are truly independent people, i.e. not your friendsor close colleagues. The obvious researchers to suggest are the authors youcite in your article, or authors who have published on a similar topic.However, editors will never rely entirely on your suggestions and will also usetheir own networks. A popular editor resource is Elsevier's FindReviewers Tool. If, for whatever reason, editors get really stuck, theyoften approach members of the journal's Editorial Board to help them out.

Q2. What is a reviewer lookingfor?

First of all, reviewers see whether the paper is within the scope ofthe journal, whether the science is good, and whether the paper meets the"conceptual novelty" standards of the journal. Concerning conceptual novelty:it can be very useful for other researchers if you publish the melting point ofa newly synthesized molecule, but such research is not conceptually novel; atotally new method of determining melting points would be.

At a manuscript text level, one of the reviewer's priorities is tocheck the article's internal consistency. By that, I mean do the method andresults match? Do the results and conclusion match? A common weakness is thatthe different sections appear to have been written independently of each other.If the paper is cohesive it is elevated to a whole new level. Do you know theexpression "can't see the wood for the trees"? The way I often describe it isthat authors have a tendency to look at the trees when they prepare a paper, whereasreviewers almost parachute into an article and can soon spot whether the woodis missing.

Other items they look for are appropriateness of the title, abstractsand conclusions, and references. They are NOT asked to act as copy editors ofthe manuscript.

While reviewers are not responsible for detecting plagiarism, fraud andother ethics issues, in practice they often pick them up. The majority ofpapers submitted in EES (Elsevier Editorial System) are now also automaticallyloaded to CrossCheck,which uses iThenticate software to check for textual overlap with the rest ofthe published literature ("plagiarism") back to the early 1990s. It alsohappens that fellow scientists spot plagiarism or fraud in published papers,and then they contact the journal.

Q3. Why does it occasionally takeso long to get my paper reviewed?

Sometimes the editor has a problem finding reviewers, either becausethe researchers they approach are too busy or the field you work in is quiteniche making the pool of reviewer candidates very small. In other cases, thereviewer who originally agreed to review does not deliver and the editor has tostart again. It's worth remembering that editors may sometimes need to invite 10reviewers just to get the two usable Reviewer Reports they need.

Q4. English is not my firstlanguage. Will that affect my chances of publishing success?

I do understand – it's not my mother tongue either and I sometimesstruggle with that in my own job. But "language" remains the responsibility ofyou as the author. If there are flaws in the language of a paper but the editorsees there is great science, then your paper will still make it into the reviewprocess. However, you may be asked to address the language later on in theprocess. The ElsevierWebShop can help you.

Q5. My paper shouldn't have beenrejected. What can I do?

Although editors and reviewers can make mistakes (after all they arehuman!), manuscripts are not rejected without a reason. In the case ofborderline rejections, at least three pairs of eyes (the editor and tworeviewers) have had a look at your paper, and there was a convergence ofopinion. On average, reviewers spend four hours reviewing your paper – that iseight hours' free, expert consultancy, something hard to ignore! The problem, andI do understand this, is that authors are often too close to the text – it's theirbaby. However, you need to be able to take a step back.

If you really think you have a case and that your paper should havebeen accepted, you can go back to the editor. But in the majority of cases, thereason authors do this is because they simply can't emotionally accept therejection. If you do go back to the editor, be careful not to be personal inyour comments – ensure your rebuttal is polite, scientific and fact-based.

Q6. Can I resubmit my paper to ajournal that has already rejected it?

Generally, I'd suggest you do not; otherwise the editor would haveinvited you to resubmit in the non-acceptance letter. If the editor felt arevision would have helped your paper, they would have indicated that the firsttime around. Unless you have made substantial changes to your submission, itwould not be worth the effort.

Q7. Well, can I submit thatrejected paper to another journal in the field?

Yes, after rejection you are free to do with your manuscript whateveryou want. Unfortunately, some authors submit their paper to another journalwithout making any changes, which is not smart: the new editor may send yourpaper to the same reviewers, who will not be amused if they find that youhaven't made any of the changes they deemed necessary. The way to go is to lookat why your paper was rejected, and to address those issues before resubmission.

Q8. Will the editor tell me thenames of the researchers who reviewed my paper?

No, the reviewers remain anonymous. In rare cases, authors have come tous and have said that the reviewer improved their paper so much that they wouldlike them listed as a co-author. Then the editor can approach the reviewer to findout whether they are happy to become known to the authors.

Q9. Why are the reviewer'scomments to the editor not shared with the author?

Well, the reviewers need to be able to tell the editor what theyrecommend. What if the recommendations of the two reviewers clearly differ?It's then down to the editor to make the final decision. Having said that, it'snot good if those confidential comments differ from the tone of the feedbackcontained in the Reviewer Report.

About the webinar

PublishingConnect is Elsevier's ongoing and popular researcher skills trainingprogram. This year marked the launch of Publishing Connect's first onlinewebinar series. The webinar 'How reviewers look at your paper' was held onThursday 23rd October, attracting almost 800 attendees worldwide and more than200 questions. The archiveversion of the webinar is now available.

Theother two webinars in this series were 'Options in article publishing: open access' and 'Ways to get yourpublished paper noticed'. If you did not originally sign up for thesewebinars, these links will ask you to register your details. Please note, youwill only need to register once to gain access to all three webinars.

For information about future Publishing Connect webinars,please visit the Training and Workshops section on

Contributor biography

Jaap van Harten
Dr. Jaap van Harten is Executive Publisherfor Pharmacology & Pharmaceutical Sciences at Elsevier in Amsterdam, TheNetherlands. He trained as a pharmacistat Leiden University, The Netherlands, and got a PhD in clinical pharmacologyin 1988. He then joined Solvay Pharmaceuticals, where he held positions inpharmacokinetics, clinical pharmacology, medical marketing, and regulatoryaffairs. In 2000, he moved to Excerpta Medica, Elsevier's medical communicationsbranch, where he headed the Medical Department and the Strategic PublicationPlanning Department. In 2004, he joined Elsevier's Publishing organization,initially as Publisher of the Genetics journals and books, and since 2006 asExecutive Publisher Pharmacology & Pharmaceutical Sciences.

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