The process of publishing a scientific article begins when a group of scientists set out to answer an outstanding question in their field. They then design and conduct a set of experiments to answer this question. Once the scientists feel that their results answer their questions, one of them – usually the one who did the largest number of experiments in the project – writes a first draft of their article.
Writing the Draft
This article draft is then read and edited by the other researchers who contributed to the experiments described in the paper. They will also be listed as its authors. Once all the article’s co-authors have agreed on a version of the article that they are satisfied with, they may choose to post it on a preprint server. This is an online forum where researchers can post scientific articles that have not yet been accepted for publication in a scientific journal. You can learn more about the differences between preprints and peer-reviewed articles in our past Snapshot on Preprints.
Getting Feedback: The Peer-Review Process
Whether or not the authors decide to post their article to a preprint server, they eventually send it to a scientific journal for publication. Different journals publish different types of articles, and the first thing that the journal’s editor will do is to check that it fits with what that journal usually publishes. This includes considerations like the field of science that the paper falls into, or the techniques used. If the editor accepts the paper, they then send it to a panel of scientists – usually two or three – who are experts in the article’s topic of research. These scientists – known as reviewers – read the paper and assess its quality. This includes asking questions like:
Did the authors do the right experiments to answer the questions that they were asking?
Were the experiments done correctly, or were mistakes made?
Do the results of the authors’ experiments mean what the authors claim that they mean?
The reviewers then send the editors a list of comments about the paper. These comments may include questions about the experiments, disagreements about what the experiments’ results mean, and requests for the authors to do new experiments to strengthen their conclusions.
If the reviewers think that it would take too much work to make the paper ready for publication in the journal, they will recommend that the editor reject the article. If this happens, the authors choose another journal to send their article to. That journal’s editor distributes the article to a new set of reviewers, and the review process begins again.
Revisions and Acceptance
If, on the other hand, the reviewers do not reject the article, the authors are given a set amount of time – usually several months – in which to respond to the reviewers’ comments. This could include doing new experiments, rewriting sections of the paper, and/or writing a response to the reviewers’ comments. The article may be sent between authors and the journal’s reviewers several times. However, once the reviewers all agree that their concerns about the paper have been addressed, the paper is deemed ready for publication. After additional formatting by copy editors, the paper is published in the next virtual and/or physical issue of the journal.
Between writing and rewriting a paper, having it read by multiple people, and doing new experiments, the process of publishing a scientific article can take months or even years! This is especially true if it ends up being sent to multiple journals. In the end, though, this process holds scientists accountable to their peers, allowing us all to be more confident in the findings of scientific research.
If you would like to learn more about scientific publisishing, take a look at this resource by the Understand Science.
Snapshot written by Amy Smith-Dijak and edited by Celeste Suart.