Science has a thousand problems, but the time it takes for our manuscripts to be peer reviewed ain’t one. At least, that’s how I feel. How about you?
I hear folks griping about the slow editorial process all the time. Then I ask, “how long has it been?” And I get an answer, like, oh almost two whole months. Can you believe it? Two months?!”
That boggles me. I don’t know if my attitude is the norm or the outlier. I guess this poll will tell us.
I bet most of us have stories about extraordinarily outliers. When I was in grad school in the mid-late ’90s, manuscripts were still submitted by post. You had to send a few photocopies, and the editor would pop them in the post to prospective reviewers. Once, an editor physically lost and then forgot about my manuscript while moving to a new job. About nine months later, when I got around to asking, he was like, “Whaaa….? oh crap I’m sorry,” and expedited the reviews. Which took maybe six weeks. Just last year, I had a colleague who had a manuscript linger for about a whole year with no notice. The Editor-in-Chief failed to respond to emails and phone calls. That’s beyond hideous.
So I’m totally cool with 2-3 months to get reviews and a decision. It’d be nice for a desk reject to come within a few days, but if it takes the editor another week to get to it, that’s fine with me.
Could the review process be faster? I guess, but I think getting it much lower than what we have right now is really hard to do.
I realize that the progress of my career isn’t contingent on how quickly new papers are added to my CV. For grad students, postdocs, and junior faculty, the speed of the publishing pipeline matters more.
Most of what we publish doesn’t need to get out there right away. On one occasion I’ve dealt with an author who had a urgent reason to expedite the path to publication, for conservation/policy purposes. But typically, speed is a matter of personal preference or career utility. (That’s also why I say ‘meh’ to posting preprints in repositories. It’ll come out when it comes out. Whatevs.)
What might it take to speed up the time to decision beyond what we have now? There’s a great post about how to minimize time-to-decision by Emilio Bruna, on the Biotropica blog. He would know because he runs a tight ship at Biotropica where decisions happen mighty quickly.
If you haven’t been on the editorial side of a journal, please know that there are a lot of steps in the process.
The routing of manuscripts varies among journals, so the process varies, but there are a lot of moments where things pause and each paper goes through the digital hands of several people:
- The editor-in-chief gets it, then decides to desk reject or assign to a handling editor. (hours to a few days)
- The handling editor looks over the paper and decides whether to desk reject. (hours to a few days)
- The handling editor needs to find reviewers who are willing to review the manuscript. (days to multiple weeks. There is little written about this online as far as I can tell, but it is a bugbear for handling editors. I have a post about this in the queue of posts-to-be-written.)
- The reviewers return their reviews, probably within a few days before or after the deadline. (2-4 weeks, but perhaps much much longer)
- The editor reads the reviews, scrutinizes the paper to a certain extent, and makes a decision. (hours to a week, especially if the reviews are conflicting or tricky in some way)
- The decision then may go through the editor-in-chief. (hours to days)
I should go to a great length to point out that even though I’m not picky about how long it takes for me to get my manuscripts back, I work hard as an editor to keep review times low. Even though it’s not a big deal to me, it’s something that sizable fraction of the community thinks is really important. I’m pretty proud of my record as an editor in keeping review times low. I want the society journals that I support to have good relations with authors who value the society’s journals. So I do my best to handle these things promptly. Sometimes I’ll have a complete set of reviews for more than a couple days while I work on the decision, because I’d rather do things right than do things quickly. But it’s always going to be a high priority for me. Authors deserve that kind of treatment. I imagine most other editors would agree with this sentiment.
When a review is taking a long time, I suggest there are three major possibilities:
- The editor is having a really hard time finding people to review the paper.
- A reviewer is being irresponsible.
- Someone dropped the ball due to negligence or circumstances beyond their control.
When I was dealing with some personal stuff a few years ago that really interfered with work, there were a few weeks when I just didn’t even log on to the manuscript management system. And that was fine. Maybe there was an author venting on twitter that I was taking too long. But so what, I had other priorities at that moment in time.
It takes 3-4 people to get a manuscript to decision in a short time frame and if any one of them has something come up and they don’t do their job promptly, then the whole process gets gummed up. As an author, when it takes a while for me to get a manuscript back from the editor, I’m more concerned that everybody is okay than I am about that line on my CV. The community is small enough that there’s a good chance that I know who the editor is, and perhaps we’re even conference buddies or have collaborated together. When I don’t get a review back quickly, I can be confident it’s not because they have it in for me, and not because the process is broken. It’s just because peer review involves human beings.
[Update, 2 hours after posting: Meg Duffy brought to my attention this great and highly relevant post by Stephen Heard, about how long peer review should take. By his numbers, under the best of circumstances, getting a paper back within seven weeks is pretty good, and any little slow down can get it well past the 2 month range. Stephen also pointed to a peer-reviewed paper that showed how a sizable fraction of scientists have entirely absurd expectations about how long peer review should take: “Peer-review speed was generally perceived as slow, with authors experiencing a typical turnaround time of 14 weeks while their perceived optimal review time was six weeks.” One caveat is that article is about conservation biology journals, which is one corner of our discipline in which the prompt dissemination of findings might be of import.]