Jeremy’s post this morning about personalized review requests from the NSF is a perfect lead into something I’ve wanted to discuss: why it takes so long for manuscripts to be reviewed. Here are some thoughts as an associate editor, that aren’t at all original but bear repeating.
The typical process: A manuscript is submitted (cross those fingers!) If it passes a brief technical check for formatting, the editor-in-chief assigns it to an associate editor (AE) to handle. The AE gives it a quick read to sort out clearly inappropriate manuscripts and identify a list of potential reviewers. AE invites reviewers until two or three have accepted their assignment. Reviewers read the manuscript and submit their reviews, which the AE uses to guide their decision.
Therefore there are three places to lay the blame for slow turnaround: the editorial office, the AE, and the reviewers. The editorial office is staffed by paid professionals. This isn’t usually a major source of delay. Sometimes the volunteer AE’s fall asleep on a paper, but that’s unusual and the editorial office should keep an eye on them.
That leaves reviewers to gum up the works, which they can do in at least four different ways:
1) Not agreeing to review. Personalized invitations do help, but they’re no panacea. It’s not uncommon to have to invite eight to ten people just to find two who agree.
2) Not agreeing OR disagreeing to review. Even worse than saying no is saying nothing. Or taking ten days and multiple invitations to say no. If the odds of any reviewer saying yes is 25%, those week-long delays add up fast.
3) Turning in the review late. Journals typically give reviewers two to four weeks to read the paper and submit their reviews. Very few succeed in meeting this goal.
4) Going AWOL. The worst situation is when a reviewer agrees to review, but then disappears from the face of the earth. Should the AE wait for a review that may never materialize? Should they try to find another reviewer? Should they act as a reviewer themselves and go with one other review? In any case, the time to decision just went up by at least two months.
Things often work smoothly, but sometimes it’s a comedy of errors. And that’s why it took four months for your manuscript to emerge from the peer-review system.
How to improve the process? As Jeremy alluded to, Mark McPeek and other editors wrote a great editorial calling for the application of the Golden Rule. In practical terms, here’s what we all could do:
1) Say YES when asked to review.
2) If you can’t do it in a reasonable amount of time, say no immediately. Don’t let that invitation sit in your inbox.
3) Suggest colleagues who might be good alternatives, preferably non-obvious ones like postdocs who might not have already been invited.
4) Don’t take the deadline as a suggested time to start reviewing.
5) Keep the editorial office informed. If you’re going to need an extra week, let the AE know, and try hard to stick to that new deadline.
My own personal suggestion is inspired by the announcer at Schiphol airport: “Passenger X traveling to Barcelona. You are delaying the flight. Immediate boarding at gate C14 or we will proceed to offload your luggage.” When all reviews except one are in, and that one is late, the tardy reviewer gets an automated email letting them know that they are delaying the review process. Chop chop! Unfortunately the review process is strictly voluntary, so we have no luggage to unload.
If any of you have further suggestions, leave them in the comments.