We address peer review in two parts:
Peer review is the process by which manuscripts are selected for publication in journals.
There are many different ways in which the process is conducted, but the core principle is that a submission is read by experts in the field, who provide comments to a senior editor to make a decision on whether to accept or reject the paper. The reviewers should comment on features such as the robustness of the methodology, and whether the research has been designed, conducted and analysed in a way which is coherent, valid and ethical.
Lack of peer review is one of the defining characteristics of ‘predatory’ journals, moreover, it does not benefit the author to avoid the peer review process.
Several industry surveys report that the majority of researchers agree that comments received from peer reviewers and the editor improve their final published articles. In a 2015 survey of 7,400 researchers, Taylor & Francis reported that 75% of researchers rated the benefit of the peer review process towards improving their article as 7 or above out of 10. In the 2018 Publons Global State of Peer Review, 98% of respondents considered peer review as either important (31.2%) or extremely important (66.8%) for ensuring the general quality and integrity of scholarly communication.
Look to see whether the journal has a statement or description of their peer review process, that details the workflow of papers through the system and who is responsible for handling the paper at each stage; for example, an Editor-in-Chief may assign an Associate Editor to recruit reviewers and make a decision, or other variations of responsibility.
Check to see whether any guidelines are posted to the website or mentioned anywhere. These might be a document describing what the journal is looking for in peer review, or a statement of the ethical responsibilities of reviewers, and the journal's peer review process.
An ethical statement may declare that the journal has adopted, endorses, and encourages its reviewers to adhere to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) Guidelines for Reviewers – one of the foremost authorities on publication ethics.
The most common forms of peer review involve keeping identities of reviewers and/or authors secret, at least until the peer review process is over. These are known as Single Blind (where the author does not know the names of the reviewers), and Double Blind (where all author information is removed from a paper, and neither reviewers or authors can be identified).
This may affect how you must format your paper on submission, as Double Blind journals often request the submission of a copy of the paper without any identifying information.
Following types of blinding, we have types of openness. In a 2017 review of publishing models, Tony Ross-Hellauer identified seven Open Peer Review traits that you may encounter:
As a result of all the evolving forms of open reviewing, journals are becoming more transparent about their peer review processes as a service to authors and their communities, and this information can be helpful for adjusting your own expectations of how long the process should take.
Some provide statistics on the average peer review times, or time from first submission to publication on their websites. For example, the Elsevier ‘Journal Finder’ tool provides turnaround times for peer review and production in the search results.
You can estimate some peer review times by checking the received, accepted and published dates of papers published on the website – quite often these dates are included. Look at several recent papers and average out the timescales to get a rough idea of the current reviewing and publication turnaround times.
The SciRev website provides average peer review times on a number of measures, such as immediate reject, first submission, and subject-area times, with which you can benchmark journals you are investigating; for example, first decision turnarounds for a full review of a paper in the Natural Sciences category take an average of 11 weeks, from first submission to acceptance in a total of 14 weeks.