How to Manage a Peer-Reviewed Journal

The number of academic journals—electronic and print—has exploded over the last decade, yet instruction on how to run an academic journal is virtually nonexistent. Of course, most journals are launched by academics but run by larger publishers, such as SAGE or Duke. But, what if you want to run one yourself, out of your department or university? Run correctly, journals can earn quite a bit of money for your department or association.

I used to teach workshops to graduate students, faculty members, and university staff on all aspects of publishing the academic journal, but I don’t anymore. So, I decided to put the notes from the lectures I used to give on the topic. At one point I thought I would write a book on the topic, but I haven’t gotten around to that. 

The goal of the information below was to aid editors in improving their journals financially, technically, and academically.


There are many processes involved in publishing a peer-reviewed journal.  

The first is the set up process, in which you make a variety of decisions about your new journal, such as its name; who will be the faculty editor, managing editor, copyeditor, layout artist, designer, and board members; what style manual you will use; and what the scope of your content shall be. You will also need to identify a good printer or web hoster, set up a subscription database, and design the general layout of the journal.

Next is the production process, the actual physical task of putting a journal together. This process starts as soon as you have accepted an article for publication. It consists of preparing illustrations, copyediting manuscripts, insuring authors see corrections to their articles, typesetting all corrections, scanning illustrations, laying out the journal (either for print or electronically), proofreading, insuring authors see the proofs, typesetting all corrections, sending electronic copy to the printer or webmaster, setting the correct front and back matter, and reviewing bluelines or the web page.

If yours is a print journal with paid subscribers, you then begin the distribution process. Distribution consists of printing subscriber labels, placing journals in mailers, and shipping journals to subscribers. Another is the subscription management process, a much neglected and essential task for print journals. This consists of maintaining and updating a subscriber list. Most of all, you make sure that address changes are entered, payments are recorded, checks processed, unpaid subscribers nagged, and renewal forms are sent to all subscribers once a year.

The final one is the marketing process, which consists of creating ads, suggesting exchange ads, setting up a web page, and sending out e-mail announcements of new issues to listservs.

Other than these technical processes, you have the intellectual tasks of the running the peer-review process of a journal: establishing standards, maintaining a fair peer review process, accepting and rejecting manuscripts, working with authors to improve their manuscripts, and so on. 

Steps in the Set-up Process

Let’s assume that you are starting from absolute scratch. What are the steps?

  1. Mandate—what is the purpose of the journal, who is the audience, do any competitors exist, how will you do things better
  2. Funders—who will provide start-up costs, office space
  3. Name of journal—most are going toward very descriptive, losing the creative first part
  4. Editors—who is what, important to get this down in writing, prevents problems later, make sure at least one person assigned to copyediting, layout, and subscription management
  5. Format—How often, how long, what sections?
  6. Design—cover, text, etc.
  7. Peer review process—what kind?
  8. Space—where will the office be?
  9. Management—how will the print and electronic files be set up, making sure to set them up, what software for subscription database
  10. 1Freelancers and Printing—who will do design, layout, copyediting, printing?

Steps in the Production Process

The production and distribution of peer-reviewed journals starts as soon as you have accepted an article for publication. Such tasks typically fall to the journal’s managing editor. It is important, when hiring a freelancer to work on the design or production of your journal, to find someone with experience in journals or books. For instance, many graphic designers do not know how to lay out a book or journal, which is quite different from laying out an advertisement, brochure, or magazine. You will often do better with freelancers who are typesetters or book producers than with graphic designers. The same is true for copyeditors. It is best to hire someone familiar with copyediting books or journals rather than newspapers or newsletters.

  1. Get final electronic copy of manuscript. Important to keep track of. Set up files on computer for tracking.
  2. Copyedit it (see below for instructions)
  3. Make sure you have a good electronic copy of all images
  4. Ask other journals for exchange ads
  5. Send copyedit to author electronically
  6. Nag author to get back to you with changes
  7. Enter changes
  8. Ask for bids from printers and pick cheapest one
  9. Lay out in desk-top publishing program
  10. Send proofs to author electronically
  11. Nag author to get back to you with changes
  12. Enter changes
  13. Send files to printer
  14. Make sure subscription database is up to date (addresses, payments, checks processed, renewals sent)
  15. Send e-mail to listserv reminding people to subscribe
  16. Review bluelines or website posting of journal
  17. Print labels and mail issues to subscribers
  18. Place table of contents of new issue on web page
  19. Store remainder of print issues

It is very important to receive all illustrations (photos, maps, cartoons, etc.) in good shape. Unfortunately, although many people know how to scan images, few know how to scan them properly for print production. It is best to talk to your printer about what they need, but in general scanned images should be grayscale TIFF or EPS, 300 dpi, at 100%. Also, you cannot print any illustration from a book without asking permission of the publisher. Be careful with music as well, as it often has quite fierce copyright protection. Authors are supposed to get permissions for their articles, but they often have to be reminded.

It is very important that you get signed copyright agreements from all your contributors. Although academics are unlikely to sue you for misusing their materials, there are many reasons to have everything squared away legally. For instance, if the journal should be successful and someone wants to buy the journal and put the back issues on-line, you will need to have signed copyright agreements from all the contributors before this deal can go through. Save time later by doing this right now. The best thing you can do for your journal is get your contributors to sign over all the rights in their essay. Although this sounds draconian, it protects the journal best and ensures that the article will be as widely disseminated as possible. Since academics are not used to retaining the rights to their work, they usually don’t complain. I’m writing this with my editor hat on. As an author, I would scream on reading these words, as academic authors need to do a lot more to protect their intellectual property.

Steps in the Financial Process

This is the most difficult area of journal management.

One of the easiest ways to advertise your journal is to do exchange ads. Almost anyone will do this with you and it costs you nothing. The other is to have an e-mail listserv, works the best. Have a good web page. Don’t spend any money on advertising.

You must have a database of subscribers. it’s the hardest and most boring part of running a journal and the most important. Without it you are printing issues for no readers. 

Regarding distribution, you can often have the printer send journals, often the best, easiest.

Steps in the Peer Review Process

Managing the editorial content of a peer-reviewed journal largely consists of reviewing and selecting articles to be published. Peer review is the essence of any good academic journal: the process during which peers evaluate submissions. The task of running this process typically falls to the journal’s editor and/or editorial board. They include notifying authors of the receipt of their submission, reviewing each submission for general suitability, selecting appropriate reviewers for each submission, asking potential reviewers if available to review, sending manuscripts to reviewers, nagging reviewers to return comments, collating reviewers’ recommendations, making final decisions about acceptance or rejection, writing a cover letter to authors notifying them of this decision and making recommendations for revision, and reviewing revisions when they are returned. An important part of a good peer review is carefully tracking each submission through every stage of this complicated process. Only if you record and file all correspondence regarding the submission can you be sure that you are dealing with authors fairly. A final part of the peer-review process is creating a copyright agreement, sending it to authors, and filing the returned agreements in a safe, easy-to-find place.

Tracking, reviewing, and selecting submissions is not easy. This is not just an intellectual task but an important administrative task. It is really important to have a careful tracking system for submissions. You should also take care of your authors; let them know you have received the manuscript and where it is in the process at each stage. With e-mail, and no cost, it is really an obligation. Always record the date when things happen to manuscripts. The steps in the peer review process are as follows:

  1. Submission comes in, sometimes solicited, sometimes not.
  2. Letter sent to author acknowledging receipt
  3. Editor reviews and decides if it meets certain basic criteria. If not, returned to the author with a note saying so. If it does,
  4. Editor identifies two or three peer reviewers. Usually someone from the editorial board and someone directly in your field
  5. Getting people to actually do reviews can be hard. If you are a graduate student journal, I recommend reading parties and schedule them for fall quarter. If you hold a reading party with pizza in fall quarter, not too late, you may get quite a few people to show up and get a lot of work done. Too much academic work is lonely, people don’t need anything else to go away and do on their own. Make your journal social and it will succeed. Remember that a journal is really an excuse to have conversations and so set it up to forward that.
  6. Editor asks potential reviewers if have time, if no, ask more. If yes,
  7. Editor sends submission to the reviewers along with a cover letter giving a deadline, from three weeks to three months, and a standard form
  8.  Reviewers review and write up notes on review. Some just fill out the form. Some give one paragraph. Some give two pages of general comments. Some give pages with line by line notes, almost copyediting
  9. Editor nags reviewers to get reviews back, a big job.
  10. Reviewers send their comments.
  11. Editor reviews the reviews. If both accept or both reject, the editor’s job is straightforward. If one rejects and one accepts, must determine which way to go.
  12. Editor then communicates with authors. In best possible world, editor sends a letter incorporating the two reviews, explaining what he or she agrees with or doesn’t agree with. Pay attention to this, ignore that. Usually though, just get a brief cover letter and two attached reviews.
  13. Response by editor can be pure accept, accept pending minor revisions (some citations, some grammar, move sections), accept pending major revisions (add sections, change argument), reject but resubmit (same as accept pending major but changes required are very big, less confidence that can pull it off), reject and redirect (not right for us, but for someone else, should be in first stage not after review), and pure reject (when see the phrase best of luck).
  14. Author must decide how to proceed. Can do a workman-line revision or a serious one. Workmanlike, you say I should mention so-and-so, I put his name in a one-sentence footnote. Serious, do major new research.
  15. Author resubmits article. If accepted pending minor, just editor reviews. If accepted pending major, sometimes goes back to reviewers.

Steps in Writing Good Peer Reviews

  1. Before starting any reviewing, spend an afternoon in the library actually reading academic journals. Not the top ones in your field, but the average ones. Read for structure, prose, and argument. Notice how low the general level of writing and argument is and don’t hold your peers to standards only attained rarely at top-flight journals. Students rarely read average articles, they tend to read Jameson and Derrida, highly theoretical pieces that do not reflect average scholarship.
  2. Always start with the positive. Never leap right into the bad stuff. Good title, good structure, interesting idea, fascinating topic, so on.
  3. Be specific. Vague instructions to improve the structure somehow, to cite more people in the field, to improve the grammar are just frustrating and unhelpful. Say, I think your conclusion would serve better as your introduction, I think that you need to cite the five authors doing work on Latinas in Los Angeles, I think you should review this for passive sentences and alter many of them to active.
  4. Don’t overfocus on absences. This is a major problem of reviewing in general.
    1. Reviewers spend far too much time identifying obscure references that “should” be cited. Of the making of books there is no end. If a single book comes to you, write it down, but make sure it is actually directly on target. If they really don’t have a literature review, then this needs to be addressed, but this is easily stated as “you don’t have a literature review, please provide one.”
    2. Or insisting that a paper does not cover something they think it should cover. For instance, that a paper on the US situation should address the Latin American situation or that a paper on such and such an author cover his book on another topic. Essays are only twenty to thirty pages; respect the author’s decision on where to limit this. If you want to ask the author to explain the choice in a footnote, that’s fine, but to insist that the author add something they have chosen not to address is unfair. If you want an essay on Emerson not Thoreau, don’t punish the author.
    3. In summary, address the essay on its own terms. You can almost always find enough there to critique without having to fault them on everything they haven’t covered.
  5. Don’t get frustrated. If you are feeling frustrated with the author, it’s probably because you are feeling responsible for fixing the piece. You are not responsible for fixing it. You are responsible for identifying what is not working. If many things are not working about the essay, do not spend time fixing it up. This is the author’s responsibility. If for some reason you feel that the author has got hold of something important and needs help to articulate it, then feel free to spend some extra time, but it should only be out of that impulse. Don’t spend a lot of time on something you think is very poor. I will rarely be helpful to you or the author.
  6. Be respectful. In the end, it is their work, not yours.
  7. Focus your review first, second, and third on their argument. Do they have one, is it clear, is it a contribution to the field? Then focus on structure, how does the essay move, what are its sections, are these in correct order with solid transitions. Finally, look at style, how the sentences are constructed and whether they flow.

Steps in the Copyediting Process

Editors have two main tasks: copyediting and proofreading. Copyediting is correcting a manuscript from the author. Proofreading is correcting a print ready document from the publisher. The tasks of the copyeditor are more complicated than those of the proofreader.

Frequently, people without training use the word proofreading to refer to a light edit (correcting only basic errors) and copyediting to refer to a heavy edit (improving a manuscript’s clarity and logic). Although these are not the strict meaning of the terms, as noted above, it is true that proofreading is usually less intensive and takes less skill than copyediting. For instance, many beginners start as proofreaders and only later move on to copyediting.

Copyediting is a set of important, time-consuming, and difficult tasks. Not only must the editor catch every grammar and spelling error and standardize style and documentation, but he or she must also avoid introducing errors or changing the author’s meaning or style. Unlike almost anything else in modern life, no machine can perform this complicated combination of tasks. The software program has not been invented that can make the hundreds of decisions an editor makes every minute (although spell check has been a godsend). For this reason, copyediting will remain a portable and profitable profession for some time to come.

As a demonstration of the difficulties of copyediting, please count aloud how many F’s are in the following sentence (from Fundamentals of Proofreading). Count only once.


If you said four, you were three too few. Many readers miss the F’s in the “unimportant” of’s. That is because the good reader often is really skimming, working on quick general recognition. The good copyeditor must train her or himself out of this tendency to read for sense and must start to look at each and every letter in the manuscript.

In the past, all manuscripts were copyedited by hand; that is, with paper and pencil. Copyeditors used certain symbols to represent how they thought the manuscript should be changed. If they had any questions for the author, they put these questions on Post-Its folded over the relevant page. The author then reviewed these handwritten changes, accepted or rejected the changes in pen on the copyedited manuscript, and returned it to the editor. Now, copyeditors all work electronically and do not use copyediting symbols at all. The most common copyediting method now is to edit an electronic document in a word processing program like Word. The editor deletes errors and enters changes while leaving the tracking mechanism on. That is, the original document remains intact except that deletions and additions are represented with colors, shades of gray, and/or bubbles. If the editor has any questions for the author, these are put into electronic notes at the relevant place in the document. This document is then sent electronically to the author for review.

Types of Copyediting

Copyediting is not one task but a set of tasks. Some of these tasks are purely objective—one must correct certain kinds of common errors. Such corrections are so standard that the author need not be asked about such changes; the editor may just make them. Others are subjective—one works to improve a manuscript’s clarity and logic while yet retaining the author’s voice and meaning. Such changes are often flagged so that the author can carefully review them. I like to distinguish among these various tasks.

Technical editing involves correcting the matters where there is a strict right and wrong. This includes correcting errors in:

  1.  Spelling (e.g., misspellings of authors’ names, British spellings, typos, missing or misplaced diacritical marks, letters that didn’t scan in properly)
  2. Verbs (e.g., problems with subject-verb agreement, incorrect verb tense)
  3. Punctuation (e.g., unnecessary or missing commas, misused semi-colons or colons, misplaced apostrophes in possessives and contractions, unmarked em-dashes and en-dashes)
  4. Modifiers (e.g., dangling or misplaced modifiers)
  5. Pronouns (e.g., problems with pronoun-antecedent agreement, unclear antecedents)
  6. Articles (e.g., misuse of articles by ESL authors)
  7. Word Choice (e.g., misused words like effect for affect)
  8. Sentence structure (e.g., split or fused sentences, sentence fragments)
  9. Parallelism (e.g., faulty attempts at parallel construction)
  10. Acronyms and Abbreviations (e.g., spelling out on first appearance)
  11. Mathematics (e.g., figures that don’t total in charts and tables)
  12. Facts (e.g., incorrect dates)
  13. Bibliographies (e.g., alphabetical order of authors)
  14. Miscellaneous (e.g., omitted words or repeated words that are remnants from previous drafts)

Style editing involves standardizing a text according to a particular style. There are four bibles of style: The Chicago Manual of Style (for most academic texts), the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (mostly for the social sciences), the Modern Language Association Style Manual (mostly for literary criticism), and the Associated Press Stylebook (for newspapers). See the following section for some highlights on one of these books, the Chicago Manual of Style. These manuals are used for guidance in matters where there is no right or wrong, but material must appear consistently. This includes standardizing:

  1. Capitalization (e.g., which words in heads, titles in bibliographies, and proper nouns should be capitalized?)
  2. Punctuation (e.g., when should you use single or double quote marks, where should you place colons and periods, should you use a serial comma?)
  3. Numbers (e.g., what numbers should appear as figures (11) or spelled out (eleven) and when?)
  4. Acronyms and Abbreviations (e.g., should acronyms with or without periods, how do you abbreviate state names?)
  5. Word division (e.g., which words appear as compound words (postwar), which appear with hyphens (fourteenth-century scholar), and which are open (African American)?)
  6. Quotations (e.g., how many lines must be quoted before the quote must be set aside in an extract, should a colon or comma appear before an extract)
  7. Italics (e.g., which titles call for italics and which for quotation marks, when should you use italics for emphasis or foreign words)
  8. Note numbers (e.g., should they appear indented, superscripted, or with a period?)
  9. Documentation style (e.g., should you cite sources in text and a works cited list or in footnotes and a bibliography?)
  10. Bibliographies and References (e.g., where should the date appear, should you use periods or commas to separate parts of the citation, what chronological order should be used within author’s works?)
  11. Illustrations (e.g., should captions appear with sources or without, what is their placement)

Correlation editing involves checking related parts of the manuscript against each other. This is an extremely important step in academic copyediting and a frequently overlooked one. You will always find errors here, particularly in names and dates, so perform this task carefully. Since novels or newspapers do not have related parts, copyeditors who work in these fields frequently do not learn this copyediting task. But copyeditors of academic articles or books, which have many related parts, must do crosschecks.

For instance, if the author refers the reader to page 56 to view a certain table, the editor must check to make sure that the table does indeed appear on page 56 and not 65 or 156. If the author gives an in-text citation to Hernandez 1987, the editor must check the Works Cited to see if the author’s name is spelled the same way (it could be Hernández or Hernandes) and if the date is the same (it could be 1978 or 1988).

If anything does not match, the editor must notify the author with a query. A query is a Post-It folded over the edge of the relevant page or an electronic Comment in the relevant sentence. You should flag the discrepancy in both places, with a page number reference to the other in each query. That way, it will be easy to return and correct all instances. Sometimes it will be clear which one is correct, and you may go ahead and correct the discrepancy. You should still flag it, however. If it is not clear, you may suggest a correction if one seems clear or ask the author to provide the correction.

Correlation editing includes:

  1. Checking the numbering of
    1. any page cross-references in the text (e.g., see below, on page 56 of this book)
    2. footnote or endnote reference numbers in text (unless electronically generated)
    3. footnotes or endnotes in the notes (unless electronically generated)
    4. tables or charts (e.g., is the numbering consecutive, is the numbering separate from the numbering of other illustrations?)
    5. maps (e.g., is the numbering consecutive, is the numbering separate from the numbering of other illustrations?)
    6. all other illustrations (e.g., is the numbering consecutive?)
  2. Checking the content of
    1. the illustrations against the captions (e.g., do the people mentioned in the caption actually appear in the illustration?)
    2. the illustrations against the references to them in the text (e.g., do the people mentioned in the text as appearing in the illustration actually appear in the illustration?)
    3. the list of illustrations against the illustrations (e.g., do the titles in the list match the titles actually below the illustrations?)
    4. the endnotes or footnotes against the text (e.g., are the note references correctly placed, does the content of the footnotes match the content of the text at the note reference?)
    5. the subheads against each other (e.g., do they all start with verbs or nouns, are they parallel).
    6. the running heads against the text (e.g., does the running author head list the actual author of the article, likewise with the title)
  3. Checking the consistency of (in the author-date documentation style):
    1. all citations in the text with those in the references (e.g., does the author’s name and the date of the title in the text citation match that listed in the references)
    2. all citations in the footnotes or endnotes with those in the references (e.g., does the author’s name and the date of the title in the notes match that listed in the references?)
    3. all citations mentioned in the text are actually listed in the bibliography. all citations mentioned in the bibliography are actually cited in the text. I usually put a check next to each bibliographic entry when it is cited and then query all those unchecked.
  4. It can also include, if you are editing chapters in a book or articles in a journal, checking:
    1. the table of contents against the manuscript (e.g., do the titles in the table match the titles actually appearing at the beginning of articles or chapters)

Substantive editing (sometimes called content editing) involves improving logic and clarity and addressing larger problems of structure and organization.

Since substantive editing is much more subjective than the other types of editing, it is often wise to communicate more with the author about your substantive changes. The most common way to communicate is through flags or electronic notes. Flags should appear in the right margin Authors, naturally, are bound up with their work and anything you can do to help them accept needed changes is to both your benefits. Do not use humor; it is bound to be misunderstood in this delicate situation. Never put notes in all caps, use insulting language, or add strings of exclamation marks. Make sure that your queries to the author are considerate and phrased as questions. Diplomacy here is key.

For instance, you can alert the author to a standard change (e.g., “I have changed fireman to firefighter throughout. OK?”) You can indicate that you are suggesting a change not imposing it (e.g., “See my suggestion for a transition sentence”). Some other queries are: Correct date? Paragraph redundant? Delete? Be careful to flag any changes to quotations and extracts, as the original spelling and grammar should be maintained.

Substantive editing includes addressing:

  1. Verbs (e.g., replacing passive voice with active voice, varying unintentionally repeated verbs)
  2. Punctuation (e.g., adding dashes or parentheses to clarify subordinate material)
  3. Modifiers (e.g., reducing strings of adjectives or doublings)
  4. Pronouns (e.g., replacing indefinite pronouns with clear noun subjects)
  5. Word Choice (e.g., reducing the use of an author’s pet work or phrase, changing words with racist and sexist connotations, defining special terms on first appearance)
  6. Sentence structure (e.g., cutting wordy sentences, making parallel ideas appear in parallel forms, straightening out logic and connections, noting awkward phrasing that could be improved)
  7. Essay structure (e.g., adding transitions to improve the flow of argument, deleting irrelevant material or putting it in the footnotes, moving incorrectly placed paragraphs, deleting repeated paragraphs, providing subheads, noting the absence of a real introduction or conclusion)
  8. Heads (e.g., lengthening or shortening titles for clarity, noting where title does not match content)
  9. Logic (e.g., noting where the argument is tangled or absent, where the argument could be made stronger with additional proofs)
  10. Documentation (e.g., cutting excessively long footnotes, noting citations without sources, suggesting areas for additional citation or research)
  11. Illustrations (e.g., suggesting additional illustrations)

Layout preparation editing involves marking or coding the manuscript for the layout artist, so that it is clear which parts are heads, tables, footnote references, etc., so they can be prepared for design. It is best to use Microsoft Word’s Style feature to code document electronically. This includes marking or coding

  1. all heads (and put in upper and lower case, not all capitals).
  2. the level of all subheads (1, 2, 3 and so on).
  3. prose extracts and poetry or song extracts.
  4. all dashes, both en and em.
  5. all ellipses.
  6. the placement of tables and illustrations

[This page remains incomplete. I will add other information later.]

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