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The quality of JAN is highly dependent on the conscientious contribution of our international panel of reviewers. Now that Manuscript Central (our on-line manuscript processing system) has been in operation for more than a year, we thought it would be a good idea to let reviewers and authors know that, for the editorial team, the electronic reviewing process is working very well.

Reviewers essentially help the Editors to make decisions on which papers to publish, and about revisions that should be recommended or required. This vital role takes time and effort, but is essential to promote rigour and maintain our emphasis on the quality, relevance and impact of JAN. For reviewers, the process also offers opportunities for access to current work in their own area of expertise, and the results (in confidence) of research studies before they come into the public domain. Reviewing papers for a journal is also a very good way for researchers to hone their ‘critical appraisal’ skills and, for this reason, being a reviewer for a quality journal such as JAN is viewed as a positive item on your CV.

It may be helpful to give an overview of our review process using Manuscript Central. When a paper is first submitted, its content and presentation are checked by the Executive Editor. Unless there are any immediate problems, the paper is then allocated to one of JAN's Editors and to two subject reviewers (and a third statistical reviewer if necessary). The reviewers are selected from our panel of reviewers, matched as closely as possible to the subject of the paper and method of research or inquiry involved. A minority of papers are rejected at this stage in the process if they do not match JAN's aims and scope. In addition, approximately one third of papers submitted need to be returned to their authors at this initial stage with the request for revision and resubmission. The main reasons for this are either that they exceed the maximum word limit of 5000 words or that the paper has a significant omission, for example that the research findings are not discussed in relation to existing literature. The Executive Editor may also ask for other revisions at this point if the author guidelines have not been fully adhered to, although at this early decision-making stage the main emphasis is on content and not presentation. It would save a great deal of editorial time, however, if authors would pay closer attention to JAN's author guidelines and it is frustrating, for example, when papers come in – as, alas, they frequently do! – with the wrong referencing style and ignoring the required format for headings. Papers that are resubmitted with the required initial revisions are then allocated to an editor and assigned their reviewers, and this is all done – very quickly – on-line.

An author can track the progress of their paper through the process by accessing Manuscript Central, and this has already prompted appreciative feedback to us from authors. When reviews are returned – ideally within a period of 6 weeks – the assigned Editor makes a decision based on consideration of the reviews and their own reading of the paper. A relatively small proportion of papers are forwarded to the Executive Editor for acceptance at this point but, more commonly, some revisions of content will be required. The Editor will also consider the paper's presentation against the JAN author guidelines, and indicate to the author what modifications are needed in this respect. As already mentioned, it is surprising that straightforward matters, such as the correct form of referencing or use of headings, are not adopted from the outset by authors. More careful attention by authors to these details could speed up the whole process and, for reviewers and Editors, it would remove a time-consuming and frustrating aspect of the editorial process!

When the Editor is satisfied with the author's revisions (and after further consideration by one or more reviewers if they have requested to see the paper again at this stage), the paper is forwarded to the Executive Editor with a recommendation on the final decision. Having reached this stage, the whole team – authors, reviewers and Editors – have invested a great deal of time and energy in the paper, and it is rare for a paper to be rejected at this late stage in the process. However, the role of the Executive Editor is to take a general perspective on submissions to JAN, as well as to consider each individual paper in detail. Therefore it is possible that additional – hopefully, relatively minor – modifications will still be needed. The paper is copy-edited at this stage (either by the Executive Editor or, if detailed linguistic editing is needed, by a professional copy editor) in order to standardize the presentation of papers with JAN's house style and to identify any points needing addition or clarification. This final stage of communication between the Executive Editor and author is done by e-mail.

Occasionally, if there is uncertainty or controversy at any stage – and, in particular if there are fundamentally conflicting assessments of a paper between the two reviewers and/or the editors – the Editor-in-Chief is asked to give an opinion.

From this description of the stages that any paper goes through, it will be clear just how important and central the role of reviewers is in the editorial process. It should also be apparent how very helpful it now is that we have this process working entirely on-line.

On Manuscript Central we have maintained a version of our previous checklist for reviewers, to act as a prompt to the main areas that need to be considered when judging the quality of papers. But perhaps more important for authors and Editors are the boxes for free text comments – the contents of one of these is available to authors, while the other is confidential to the Editor of the paper concerned (and, in turn, to the Executive Editor). A feature of the electronic system, which many reviewers have really liked, is the availability to them of comments by the other reviewers of ‘their’ papers. The name of the other reviewer is not revealed. This facility is particularly valued by people new to the reviewing panel, but allows all reviewers to see a ‘second opinion’, compare the two sets of comments, and perhaps gain a different perspective on the paper.

It takes great skill and judgement to be a reviewer, and to help authors develop their work by offering positive comments as well as critical, constructive, honest and courteous suggestions on how to improve the paper. We expect reviewers to discuss the originality of the work, its importance in the wider context of nursing and midwifery, the interpretation of the results with reference to the international literature on the subject, and its presentation. The main emphasis of the review should be on the content and scholarly presentation of a paper, although details of language use and referencing are checked when the paper is receiving final editorial consideration for acceptance, as already described above.

We have standards for the length of time that reviewing and editing should take, and we try strenuously to keep to these. It remains as our overall target to publish papers within 6 months of acceptance. However, acceptance of papers, and their timely processing, also depends on authors responding as quickly as they can to our requests.

As well as making the reviewing process more transparent for all involved, Manuscript Central allows a great deal of time to be saved by avoiding ‘snail mail’. It also makes it easier for reviewers to inform us if we have misallocated a paper to them and it is not within their areas of subject or methodological expertise. In addition the software alerts us automatically when reviews are overdue, so that we can allocate another reviewer if necessary. However, if reviewers are unable to submit their assessment within the specified time for any reason, we expect that they will let us know as soon as possible to avoid delays in getting feedback to authors on their papers.

More detailed information for reviewers is available at http://www.journalofadvancednursing.com together with information about how new volunteers can ‘sign up’ to join the review panel. Because quality is so important to the international reputation and esteem rating of JAN, we ask for reviewers who have at least a Master's degree, and preferably a doctorate, in nursing, midwifery or another relevant discipline, and who have personal experience of publishing in scholarly journals. There is nothing like having been on the receiving end of reviewing for appreciating how useful it can be to receive insightful feedback on a paper. When reviewing is done skilfully, it helps authors to move their work forward even if – or perhaps especially when – the comments returned to them are not exactly what they were hoping for! It is always in order, of course, for an author to dispute or challenge a particular criticism of their paper, and this can be done by explaining (and supporting) the reasons for not responding to any revision requests on return of the paper. The review process, like all aspects of JAN, is based on open and collegial communications – as should be the case for any scholarly journal.