The Academic Peer Review Process in a Nutshell

March 24, 2012 at 10:11 am  •  Posted in Education by  •  5 Comments

The peer review process is an integral part of academics.  Professors are told to “publish or perish” and they must do so in highly regarded peer review journals to demonstrate the importance of their work.  In order to get published in one of these prestigious journals they must make their way through a grueling gauntlet called the peer review process that looks something like this:

1. Read through a complicated set of instructions for authors and conform to unique and obscure formatting requirements that resemble the awful “Turabian” guidelines that keep hundreds of thousands of students from completing their thesis on time each year.  [I wonder what the cost of Turabian is to annual GDP?]

2. Submit your article in the proper format to the journal editor.  At this point you can add the article to your CV but you have to say “submitted” as part of the citation.

3. Wait several months for a reply.

4. Receive a set of reviews from 3 established academics who are familiar with the topic area and deemed qualified to judge your work.  Note that if you have material that represents a true breakthrough idea it is almost certain to be a rejection of the work of one of the three reviewers.  So, your submission will be torn to shreds by at least one reviewer and you will be asked to revise in such a way that the reviewers will maintain their standing in the research community as the leading voices on the topic.  At this point you can say “in revision” instead of “submitted” on your CV.

5. Revise your paper so that your interesting idea is no longer recognizable under the weight of hundreds of citations to the reviewers previous work and to any other now irrelevant scholars who were once mentors to the reviewers.  Also, you will need to remove all graphics with color so no one can really understand any of your data analysis, results or examples.  Finally, it would be good to eliminate any big-picture thinking and focus on the most modest conclusion that can be made using jargon that makes it inaccessible to anyone outside the field.

6. Wait another several months for a reply.

7. Your article has been accepted but they want you to make additional revisions based on criticism about inconsequential language from an assistant editor who doesn’t really know anything about your topic and may not speak English as a first language.  But don’t forget they play a critical role in ensuring that the article is legible only to those with doctorates with no marketable skills outside academia.  Also, several new articles have been published since you originally submitted the article – how could you have failed to mention these in your lit review?

8. Submit the final version of your article and send in a huge check to cover the journals expenses for printing color images.  Wait, don’t the publishing companies charge libraries a ridiculous amount of money for the journals?  Why should low-paid grad students and assistant professors have to pay their own printing costs?  Shhhh.  Don’t talk about that and don’t mention how much money these journals charge.  They are an important cog, I mean component, in the engine that obscures, I mean creates, knowledge for the benefit of society.  You can now update your CV to show that the article is “in press”.

9. Wait for several more months.

10. Your article is published and you can now remove the words “in press” from the publication listed on your CV.  The publication generates significant interest – meaning more than 10 people read it – and you are asked to speak at a conference on the topic.  Unfortunately, during the lengthy review process your laptop became obsolete as did the software program you used for data analysis.  This makes it difficult to create new examples that will be easier for your audience to understand.  Plus you need to publish more articles so you’ve been too busy trying to figure out author submission guidelines to actually think about your research.  Consequently, your Power Point slides are clumsy and difficult to understand, your talk drones on without making any sense and you raise more questions than answers because it’s too risky to make bold statements.  In other words, you fit right in and you’re on your way to becoming a tenured professor.  Congratulations!


  1. Ron Scheurer - 229990 - Class of 1981 / March 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm / Reply

    An even smaller nutshell: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

  2. Raymond / December 8, 2012 at 10:56 pm / Reply

    And I imagine you dare Justin-ify publishing this paper while firmly cramming your tongue squarely against one or the other of your cheeks inside your mouth, since I didn’t notice your alternative(other than the cartoon panel)to peer review unless…you’re guided by the YEC publishing argument which says it’s okay to bypass established knowledge gained thus far in the scientific community on the proposed subject you’re exploring with the paper you wrote. YECs want to go from writing a paper entitling it, and then with no in between steps that include others in the field even reading it let alone comparing the paper to accepted facts of the issue or the topic conclusions reached(In YECs case, g-d dunn it, and Evolution is flawed, therefore creationism is true). 🙂
    Granted, all sorts of obfuscation and red tape probably slows and inhibits any fast-tracking of the peer review process, and egos, and other human flaws and poorly designed human vetting systems like maybe tenure playing a part that hurts the peer review process.
    I recall working at Johns Hopkins Hospital as a Biomedical Engineering Technician and though info I have about it is 2nd hand from the doc friends I knew there, the physician intern process seemed as if it required the interns and even resident docs to pay their dues, in long hours, low pay, mounting medical school debt, etc. And the folks I knew in the program bitched and complained frequently, but seemed to know in order to become a medical doctor certain sacrifices need be made. So, maybe the peer review process in science, though not perfect, is the way it is because if it was really easy then anybody could do it, and then the dues paid would then become a situation of ease and little challenge. Saying that, I know any process can be made better and hopefully the peer review process in science red tape lessens and actually results in a system that reveals the best knowledge and new ideas being presented.
    In traveling from point A to B, is it better to go always the most expensive way, as in an air conditioned high priced auto with top creature comforts when in actuality it is the cargo being delivered in perfect undamaged shape that is the most important consideration not the comfort of the person who’s delivering the cargo.
    What WOULD/COULD replace the peer review process?Or rather than replace it, just revamp it a bit to streamline it with the best and the latest facts and knowledge gained on the particular subject reviewed by the scholars/experts in the end. Science has a few things with it that is a bit of a sticky situation, and that is, that it is humans with their accompanying psychology who is doing the science. Humans with their egos, and personality traits, quirks and such; and remember science does require folks with a…uh…high enough intelligence, an ability to grasp the finer points of their subject matter or at least folks who are of above average intelligence who are willing to persevere and be honest&determined&diligent enough in their pursuit of scientific knowledge, to downplay or limit the negative impacts of these psychological quirks which may get in the way. And just how much of this human psychology is a part of the flaws in the peer review process? Nice article, Justin, thnx, loved the cartoon panel.

    • Justin / December 9, 2012 at 12:06 pm / Reply

      Hi Raymond – thanks for the comment! I admit that I don’t have a well-thought-out alternative to offer – I think some sort of structured crowd sourcing would be helpful. Three reviewers is too few and the process takes too long. I had to look up YEC to figure out that you were referring to Young Earth Creationists. I think there’s plenty of room for a less restrictive publishing model that still is able to identify/categorize efforts to promote alternative theories, like creationism, that are driven by something other than scientific inquiry. Cheers, Justin

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