Review unto others as you would have them review unto you?


I am going to go ahead and assume we all want quality reviews of our journal submissions, however you define ‘quality’. Reviewers that take time to seriously evaluate your work, provide constructive feedback and ultimately improve the paper should always be appreciated. But as reviewers ourselves, we know that sometimes we don’t always give each paper our full attention. In general, I try to give good and helpful (to the author and editor) reviews. I try not to take on reviews when I know I don’t have the time to do a good job. Perhaps I am naïve but the impression I get from my colleagues and reviews of my papers is that in general most people are also trying to give good reviews.

This post isn’t so much about the quality of reviews (or tone, content, etc) but rather the timing of when you submit them. I was really happy to finish off a review and send it before the deadline this week—I sincerely try to meet my commitments for timing on reviews but this spring/summer I’ve been the worst I’ve ever been with that. I probably shouldn’t have said yes to any reviewing this spring but when something interesting came my way and I thought I could squeeze it in, I accepted. Nearly all of those reviews were overdue. But it occurred to me that I almost always submit a review around or on the deadline, regardless of how busy I am. Every time I say yes, I think, this time I will be different, this time I will sit down and just finish it early. Why wait a week or a few? It is like a New Year’s resolution that I fail to succeed at every time. Sometimes I get to reading them early and even starting the review but inevitably I end up not submitting until close to the deadline (or after). Why? Sometimes there are the usual excuses and I’m always juggling what should be done now vs what can be put off for a few days or weeks. For this latest review I had another thought: maybe I review as I do because that is what I want from others.

There is satisfaction in submitting but when a paper is ready for submission I am usually sick of it and don’t want to see it again for a while. No early response from the journal is encouraging because it usually means the paper got past the first gatepost and is out for review. That means I can forget about the paper and move on to other things. I realised that I don’t even want to see reviews for at least a month or more. Now even if everyone turned around reviews quickly a month is still a short timespan to find reviewers, get the reviews and make a decision so I don’t usually start wondering until about a month and a half go by. (UPDATE: see the comment by Stephen Heard for a rough calculation of the time it takes for a review to turn around and all the steps. Thanks Stephen!) It isn’t that I want a paper to stagnate somewhere but ‘in review’ is a nice breather to take a break from a particular idea and I don’t mind that waiting time. So my question to myself is: do I wait to complete reviews because I don’t mind waiting for my own to come back? I’m not sure if I can really answer that but it poses an interesting question—as a community do we behave as reviewers the way we like our own papers to be reviewed? Let’s find out!

Now be honest…

And here’s the kicker and time for a little soul searching:

Now I know that journals have different policies and timing for reviews so that will greatly affect the overall turn around time on submissions. But I’m curious whether we tend to unconsciously (or consciously) review on with the timing that we ourselves find acceptable or desirable.

I will continue my efforts to get my reviews in earlier than the deadline with the understanding that many might appreciate quicker turn around times, as even I sometimes do myself.

7 thoughts on “Review unto others as you would have them review unto you?

  1. It’s funny: I found myself voting that I was “OK with a month or two”, but I know perfectly well that “a month” is such blazing speed we just can’t expect useful review on that time scale (and journals that promise it are being disingenuous at best). Let’s be wildly optimistic, and figure on:

    one working day to process your submission in the journal office
    four for the Editor-in-Chief to do a quick read and assign to an AE
    four for the AE to read and invite reviewers
    five for the journal office to contact reviewers and for them to agree
    X days for the reviewers to complete their reviews (topic of this post!)
    one for the journal office to process the reviews and notify the AE
    five for the AE to consider the reviews, read the MS and write their own review/decision recommendation
    four for the EiC to consider the AE’s recommendation and make a final decision
    one for the journal office to finalize the paperwork and issue the decision letter

    I make that 25 + X working days as the absolute minimum I’d expect my manuscript to take in review. So even if X = 1, we’re over a month! And as a reviewer, I resent being asked to return a review in X < 15 (three weeks).

    So I never think twice about a manuscript’s fate until at least 2 months have passed, and I don’t worry until at least 3. There is really no risk of a manuscript coming back sooner than I’d like, no matter how diligent you are, Amy! So if you ever review one of mine, relax :-)

  2. Earlier this summer I was sent a manuscript for review just before I was starting my holidays. And the deadline was right at the end of my holidays. The manuscript seemed interesting so I said that I can review it after my holidays. I have always before sent reviews in time but in this case I was couple of days late. I guess it was ok for the journal. And actually I read the manuscript once during my holidays while sitting on train. ;-)

  3. Very interesting read! While I also view submitting a manuscript as a relief to focus on a new task, I usually get itching for reviews around the 1 month mark. I think the desire for speed of reviews might vary across career stages. Grad students and postdocs (myself included) might feel a persistent pressure to be increasing our marketability and improving our CV for the next fellowship or job application. I’m in that boat right now with a manuscript that I’m hoping can be accepted to add to my CV before I submit applications for faculty jobs. And yes, I check Manuscript Central almost daily, waiting for it to switch from “Waiting for Reviews” to “Pending Decision” :)

  4. I wonder how this varies by field? I work in biomedical sciences and I find that it’s rare for a review to take 2+ mo (roughly 6 wks is normal, give or take a week). I know people who consider 2 mo to be unacceptable and will directly contact the journal editor when a decision takes that long.

  5. There are almost always some delays in the review process, and I think most editors would accept a longer than suggested review period if asked (unless they have other reviewers lined up). I have one due now that I requested an extension for before accepting. The most common (and frustrating) holdup I experienced as subject editor was a lack of response or a delayed response. The review was usually within the suggested period or close to it once the reviewer agreed. If you are unsure of whether or not you can review in a timely fashion, most editors would probably rather get a quick response declining the invitation than a positive response two weeks later. Sometimes people are away and therefore unable to respond, but I got the sense that many will sit on the invitation, thereby stalling the process. Another observation I made as subject editor (11 years for Environmental Entomology and a couple of years for The Canadian Entomologist) was that 10% of my colleagues did 90% of the reviews (perhaps an exaggeration, but….). My rule of thumb is that I should do at least two reviews for every paper I publish. Whether or not I meet that goal depends on circumstances, but on average I am confident that I have.

  6. I try to get all reviews in as soon as possible — usually within the first week (sometimes on the same day!) I can usually rearrange things enough to make time that first week. For a while, I avoided doing this, though, because I found it easier to decline additional review requests if I had an outstanding one. But now I let myself mentally count the reviews as things I’m working on up until the deadline for when it was supposed to be due, even if I submitted the review the same day. This has worked well for me for reviews, but isn’t working for papers I handle as AE. I suspect I get some extra papers because I’m not behind.

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