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I have not published a scientific paper before. I am trying to understand the publishing process.

As far as I understand, no changes are made to the manuscript by anyone other than the author(s) until the paper is accepted, and only after the paper is accepted, copy-editors do formatting/grammar-checks/typesetting. Is this correct?

In particular, if I am correct, it means that the editor does not actually make any changes to the manuscript, but only makes decisions about whether it is accepted or not, and the reviewers also make no changes, but only give feedback.

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In general, you are correct: in general the editors and reviewers can only make suggestions for changes while only the author actually makes the changes.

In practice, however, good and thorough reviewers (and occasionally editors too) may often make highly specific suggestions for changes (e.g., "Delete this sentence", "Change phrase X into alternate phrase Y", "Cite papers A, B, and C"). Authors are strongly motivated to accept these changes in exactly or close to their stated form, for two reasons:

  1. Doing so is likely to please the reviewer and increase chances of acceptance.
  2. The reviewer often has a good suggestion and there's little reason to choose an alternate phrasing.

Finally, note that in some cases copy-editors do significantly more than just formatting/grammar-checks/type-setting. In particular, for publications with very broad audiences, it is sometimes the case that the copyeditor will actually significantly modify the words and phases used by the authors in order to make the text more accessible and more in keeping with the publication's preferred "tone." In this case, though, the authors always have a chance to review the suggested changes and make corrections in case they introduce errors, though objections to style may not be accepted by the journal.

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    "Change phrase X into alternate phrase Y" can actually end up meaning that your X was so confusing they misinterpreted it as Y, when you meant Z, so using the reviewer's exact wording is by no means guaranteed even if that's what they tell you to do. – Chris H Feb 29 '16 at 10:14
  • It reads "only the editor actually makes the changes" – Philosopher of science Oct 2 at 23:37
  • @Philosopherofscience Fixed the typo, thank you. – jakebeal Oct 3 at 4:18
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The procedure goes as follows:

  1. The authors submit a paper
  2. The editor decides whether the paper merits a review (is aligned to the journal topics, is well written, etc.). Then, he selects reviewers and sends the review requests.
  3. The reviewers get back with comments. Usually, these comments/corrections/suggestions are mandatory.
  4. The authors make these corrections, new tests/results, etc. asked by the reviewers and return the corrected paper.
  5. Points 3-4 are repeated until all reviewers are satisfied, or the procedure reaches a maximum revision number (set by the journal usually) at which point the editor makes the call (accept/reject)
  6. Upon acceptance, the authors submit the source files of the paper according to the journal rules (latex, docx, etc.).
  7. A copy-editor formats the paper and tries to make it look better, checking for typos, grammar, etc. Then, the paper is sent back to the author for one final check. The copy-editor is usually not a specialist in the field, so some times the mathematical formulas could get screwed up.
  8. The final paper goes for publication.

These are the steps according to my experience as author and reviewer in the field of electrical engineering.

  • Note that there isn't a 'back and forth' review process with the copy-editor... In one of my papers, in the first version some of the images were too small, I asked to enlarge them. They went overboard and it uses half a page on the final version.... Be complete and precise on the comments on that step! – Fábio Dias Feb 27 '16 at 12:52
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    @FábioDias that's quite worriesome. Copy-editors only give the author one shot at reviewing the proof? that's very strange; I would expect that the author would always get to review the final version. – fiftyeight Feb 27 '16 at 15:03
  • I suppose that I could ask to submit a new version, but IMHO wasn't worth it. I didn't mean to imply that you can't change the paper anymore, just that this step is usually done only once, which is kind of counter-intuitive.. – Fábio Dias Feb 27 '16 at 15:59
  • @FábioDias: When I got my first paper accepted, after we replied to the copy-editor, we got back an e-mail with an updated proof for final approval. I suppose they would change it more if I had said that it is necessary. So it probably depends on the journal. – tomasz Feb 27 '16 at 17:58
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Publishers send final PDF version of typeset manuscript to corresponding author for approval and addressing copyediting queries. If author feels correction are quite extensive and second review is needed, authors can request for revised version be sent to them for approval. Most of publishers would send revised version for author approval, if requested while sending correction of initial typeset proof.

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