Chapter 37: The journal review process

Darshini Ayton

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Understand the review process for manuscripts submitted for publication in academic journals.
  • Prepare responses to common misconceptions about qualitative research that may be evident in reviewers’ comments.


Submitting a manuscript for publication

When a researcher has completed writing up their qualitative research, it is time to prepare to submit the research to the journal they have identified as suitable for its publication. The submission process can be time-consuming; typically, it involves the following steps:

  • Preparing all the relevant documents for review. Each journal provides instructions for submission, which may include:
    • A cover letter to the editor, explaining the focus of the manuscript, the proposed format (e.g. original research article) and why it should be published in this particular journal.
    • A title page providing details about the authors and their affiliations.
    • An anonymised version of the manuscript. This will require the researcher to strip the paper of all identifying information, including author names and affiliations, and names of approving human research ethics committees. Depending on the journal, tables and figures may be placed at the end of this document or submitted as separate files and formats.
    • A separate file with all the tables and another with the figures (depending on journal requirements).
    • Supplementary data documents, such coding trees, interview guides, additional tables with themes and quotes, and the completed qualitative research reporting tool (see Chapter 36), submitted for review but not for publication.
  • Creating an author account on the journal’s submission portal (if this is the first time you are submitting to this journal).
  • Completing of an author profile, including institution details, main areas of research and keywords describing research areas (e.g. methods, topic areas)
  • Creating a new submission for the manuscript in the submission portal. This typically involves:
    • Entering the full title of the manuscript, including a short title.
    • Entering the abstract into the journal’s submission portal (not as a document upload).
    • Selecting the type of manuscript (original research article, short report, letter to the editor).
    • Selecting keywords to describe the structure of the manuscript (methods, topic area, population group).
    • Uploading the relevant documents for review (see point 1).
    • Listing all authors in the correct order, including their names, titles, institutions and email addresses.
    • Uploading a publishing agreement, including the signatures of all authors agreeing to the submission.
    • Declaring all funding sources for the research.
    • Declaring conflicts of interest for each member of authorship team (this is sometimes included in the publishing agreement and funding declaration).
    • Proposing at least two peer-reviewers who may be suitable to review the manuscript.
  • Confirming the submission. The submission system or portal then generates a single PDF file including all the documents; the submitting author is then required to review and approve this file to confirm the submission.

The peer-review process

When a manuscript has been submitted for consideration, usually the journal’s administrative team will invite an editor to handle the submission. Every journal has its own protocols for submission, so the handling editor may be the editor-in-chief, managing editor, associate editor or other personnel who may accept or reject the submission. The first task of the editor is to read all the prepared documents and the cover letter, and to decide whether the manuscript fits within the scope of the journal and warrants peer review. If the editor’s immediate decision is to reject the submission, this is known as a desk rejection.

If the editor believes the manuscript fits the scope of the journal and warrants further review, they will invite peer reviewers. Peer reviewers usually receive an email inviting them to review the manuscript, with a short abstract embedded within the email. This enables the peer reviewers to determine whether they have the expertise to review the article. However, even if a peer reviewer is confident about the methods or the topic area, this does not guarantee that they will accept the invitation to review. Recent research has indicated that 70% of invited peer reviewers decline the request.1 There are many reasons for this, including a lack of training, lack of time and the unpaid nature of the role.1, 2 Journals typically require at least 2 peer reviewers per article, and in some cases this may be 5 or 6. Hence, the editor may send out 20 or more invitations to review an article before securing the required number of peer reviewers. In the journal submission system, there is a section indicating the status of the article; if the editor is finding it difficult to find peer reviewers, the status may remain at ‘awaiting peer review assignment’ (or something similar) for a few months.

The role of peer reviewers

Peer review has a long history in academic publishing. The role of the peer reviewer is to provide a critique of a manuscript, to ensure quality and rigour, and to assist the journal editors in their publishing decision.3 Once the peer reviewer has accepted an assignment, they are provided with the collated PDF of all the submitted documents. Reviewers are required to log into a different section of the journal submission portal, and are asked to indicate whether the paper meets certain requirements (e.g. is written well; is of interest to the journal’s readership; statistical tests are relevant and have been correctly performed). The peer reviewer is required to read the manuscript and supporting documents, and to provide a report to the editor and authors. Usually, this begins with an overall summary of the paper and then feedback and questions on each section of the paper. The peer reviewer is required to recommend whether the article should be accepted as is, revised with minor revisions, revised with major revisions or rejected. The peer reviewer can also submit comments to the editor, which are not seen by the authors. Peer reviewers are usually given 2–3 weeks to provide their review. While the peer reviewers are undertaking their review, the status in the submission portal is usually listed as ‘awaiting peer review reports’. Once the reports have been provided, the editor decides whether to accept the manuscript, invite the authors to revise it (either minor or major revision), or to reject it. This decision is based on the editor’s assessment of the reports and the peer-reviewers’ recommendations.

Strengths and limitations of the peerreview process

Peer reviews can strengthen a research article by highlighting areas where further explanation is required. In qualitative research, this may include advice on the structure of the results and whether the quotes illustrate the themes well. This author has received excellent advice from peer reviewers on how to coherently integrate theory into results and how to meaningfully discuss the research within the broader context of the literature. However, there is limited evidence on whether peer review leads to the publication of high-quality research. Many concerns have been raised regarding the system and infrastructure for submission, the varied roles and responsibilities of peer reviewers, the quality of peer-review reports and potential bias on the part of peer reviewers (which journals attempt to minimise through the use of anonymised review).3 Read about some of the debates on the role of peer review:

For the researcher, anonymised peer review has the advantages and limitations of diversity in the reports and the different opinions of the peer reviewers.

Responding to peer review

Regardless of the editor’s decision to accept, revise or reject the paper, an email is sent to the authors with the results of the peer review. If the paper is rejected, reports from peer reviewers can still be helpful in strengthening the paper for the next submission. If the paper requires minor or major revision, then the author team will need to respond to each of the peer-reviewers’ points and demonstrate how they have addressed these in their revised manuscript, or provide a rationale as to why a change is not required.

Usually, authors approach the response to reviewers in one of 2 ways:

  1. Separately list the reviewer’s comment, question or suggestion, followed by a written response.
  2. Tabulate the response, with columns for the reviewer’s comment, question or suggestion, the authors’ response and changes that have been made in the manuscript.

Table 37.1 is an example of the tabulated format for addressing peer-reviewer feedback, although usually the last column is titled ‘Changes to the manuscript’. This table is an aggregate of feedback received by the author over years of publishing qualitative research and does not relate to any particular paper or peer reviewer.

Table 37.1: Common peer-reviewer feedback and example responses

Reviewer 1 Author response Resources to support the response
The small sample size for this qualitative study is not generalisable. Qualitative research does not seek to be generalisable. Instead, qualitative research seeks to provide depth of insight on the topic and research questions posed. The participants in this study are representative of the broader population with this condition. [The author could demonstrate this point with statistics from other studies in terms of characteristics of the study population.] Chapter 2

Chapter 26

Doing reflexive TA4
The researchers should report the inter-coder reliability for the analysis. Inter-coder reliability does not align with the rigour underpinnings of qualitative research. This research employed thematic or grounded theory, which does not lend itself to inter-coder reliability. These approaches to analysis focus on the interpretation of the data rather than the frequency of the data.
[Inter-coder reliability may be used for content analysis.]
Intercoder reliability in qualitative research: debates and practical guidelines5

Why don’t we advocate multiple-coders and inter-rater reliability for reflexive TA4
The issue of data saturation is not addressed. Data saturation is a contentious topic in qualitative research. We undertook reflexive thematic analysis, which does not endorse data saturation as a practice.6

[Applied thematic analysis does use data saturation.7,8]
Resources against data saturation
Thematic analysis: the good, the bad and the ugly9

Resource on data saturation
A simple method to assess and report thematic saturation in qualitative research8
The authors should state WHY they chose the [theory/ model/framework] to enable future readers to get an understanding of arguments for choosing such a [theory/ model/framework]. We have expanded the description of [theory/model/ framework] in the methods, including linking the [theory/ model/framework] to our research questions [or objectives]. We have also provided references to other studies that have adopted this [theory/model/ framework].
How did you decide on the questions to ask in the focus group interview and semi-structured interview? Please describe its process in the part of ‘Materials and methods’. We have expanded the description of the interview [or focus group] guide development, including how questions were generated, based on the literature and our work with our consumer [or patient] advisory group. We have detailed how the questions evolved after piloting and throughout the data collection period. We have provided a table in the supplementary materials of the interview [or focus group] questions, mapped to our research questions.

Process for addressing peerreviewers’ comments

Peer reviewers’ reports are typically provided to the corresponding author, or may be sent to all authors by email. It can be confronting to read reviewers’ feedback and difficult to formulate a meaningful response. Taking time to read and digest peer-reviewers’ reports before preparing a response can be a helpful start. Typically, journals provide a deadline for authors to submit their response and amended documents. If this timeframe is not achievable, it is advisable to let the journal know that more time is needed.

  1. Follow the journal’s guidelines on how to prepare the amended manuscript. Some journals ask for changes to be tracked (using the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word), and for 2 versions to be uploaded: a tracked-changes version and a ‘clean’ version. Other journals ask for changes to be highlighted in the text, using the text highlighting tool.
  2. Prepare a separate document to respond to the peer reviewers. Start by thanking the reviewers for the time they have taken to review the manuscript and for the feedback they have provided. Then respond to each of the reviewers’ points in a table or document (see for example Table 37.1).
  3. Be clear and concise, and provide evidence for your decision in the response. If appropriate, integrate this evidence into the manuscript.
  4. Do not make changes to the manuscript that do not relate to reviewer or editor feedback.
  5. Ensure all the changes are made across all the documents that are being submitted for re-review.
  6. Ask a co-author or colleague read the response, to check for tone and clarity.
  7. Resubmit the manuscript and supporting documents through the journal submission portal. It is common for papers to be sent to the same peer reviewers for a response, but new reviewers may be invited for an independent round of review.
  8. Be aware that responding to reviewers’ comments and resubmitting an article does not guarantee that it will be accepted.


Submitting a manuscript for publication can take time, as does the peer-review process. Ensure you have read the journal’s submission guidelines thoroughly, and allocate sufficient time for the submission process. There are advantages and limitations to the peer-review process, but regardless, this is the current process used in academic journal publishing. Responding to reviewers’ reports is an important part of the process towards publication, and can help to strengthen a paper before publication.


  1. Petrescu M, Krishen AS. The evolving crisis of the peer-review process. Journal of Marketing Analytics. 2022;10:185-186.
  2. Severin A, Chataway J. Overburdening of peer reviewers: A multi-stakeholder perspective on causes and effects. Learn Publ. 2021;34(4):537-546. doi:10.1002/leap.1392
  3. Tennant JP, Ross-Hellauer T. The limitations to our understanding of peer review. Res Integr Peer Rev. 2020;5:6. doi:10.1186/s41073-020-00092-1
  4. Braun V, Clarke V. Answers to frequently asked questions about thematic analysis. Accessed August 14, 2023. 
  5. O’Connor C, Joffe H. Intercoder reliability in qualitative research: debates and practical guidelines. Int J Qual Methods. 2020;19 doi:10.1177/1609406919899220
  6. Braun V, Clarke V. To saturate or not to saturate? Questioning data saturation as a useful concept for thematic analysis and sample-size rationales. Qual Res Sport Exerc Health. 2021;13(2):201-2016.
  7. Guest G, MacQueen KM, Namey EE. Introduction to applied thematic analysis. In: Guest G, MacQueen KM, Namey EE., eds. Applied thematic analysis. SAGE Publications, Inc.; 2014.
  8. Guest G, Namey E, Chen M. A simple method to assess and report thematic saturation in qualitative research. PLoS One. 2020;15(5):e0232076. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0232076
  9. Thematic analysis: The good, the bad and the ugly. Accessed August 14, 2023.