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Peer Review Week: How long should peer review take? Insights from a Managing Editor

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By AuthorAID Team | Sept. 13, 2018  |

This is a guest post from Dr Fiona Nash, Managing Editor of Academic Publications at the Royal Geographical Society. In this post, she explains all the steps that a journal will typically go through with your paper, and why it sometimes takes a long time from submission to publication.

What happens after you’ve submitted your paper to journal? How long will the peer review process take? Why does the process sometimes take longer than expected? These are all good questions, and are frequently received enquires at editorial offices.

There are no definitive rules regarding the length of time the peer review process should take, although the journal you’ve submitted to should be able to provide you information about the average time it takes for papers to complete various stages of the peer review process. Researchers have different expectations about the acceptable timeframes for peer review and the specific activities peer reviewers should reasonably undertake. Journals also have different working practices, offer various types of peer review, and have divergent expectations depending on their remit and disciplinary area. It is common for the peer review process, from submission to first decision, to take around three months in the social sciences.

Despite disciplinary differences, there are some steps that are consistent across lots (if not all) journals that help to explain why it takes this time:

1. Admin checking: First, the paper is checked by the editorial office to make sure it is appropriate to send to the editor and/or reviewers for review. Papers are sometimes returned to authors at this stage if the checks reveal potential problems. Some of the questions on the editorial office’s checklist include:

  • Does plagiarism checking software indicate any problems (i.e. has significant overlap with other published papers been identified)?
  • Has the submission form been filled out in full (i.e. are contact details for all authors included and have ethics statements completed).
  • Have the journal’s author guidelines been followed (word count, appropriate referencing system used).
  • Are the figures clear and legible.

2. Initial editor appraisal: The paper is assigned to an editor or associate editor, depending on the structure the particular journal uses. The editor/associate editor will read the paper, consider whether the paper is a good fit for the particular journal, and decide whether to send the paper out for peer review. Papers can be desk-rejected at this stage.  

(Some journals use models of peer review, sometimes called "open peer review" or "post-publication review", where papers are published immediately after basic admin checks and peer review takes place after the paper is published).

3. Reviewers invited: The editor will invite those with appropriate expertise to review the paper. Most journals in the social sciences make decisions on the basis of two reviewer reports, although this varies. Bear in mind that it can take some time to secure positive responses from potential reviewers. Some people might not respond immediately and then agree, others decline the invite (and some will very helpfully recommend potential alternative reviewers), some might not reply at all. There are lots of demands on people’s time. Sometimes editors have to invite as many as nine or 10 people to review a paper before they secure two good quality reviews (although this is at the more extreme end of the spectrum). 

4. Time for reviewers to complete their report: Practices between journals and disciplines vary, but it is common for journals to ask reviewers to submit their reports within four weeks of accepting the invite to review.  Despite best intentions, it is not always possible for reviewers to submit their reports on time.  Illness, unexpected changes in workload, and personal issues are just some of the things that can lead to delays. Journals always appreciate it when reviewers let the journal know if they think they will miss their deadline because the journal can then let the author know if there is a delay in the process, or ask another person to review if the delay is likely to be significant. 

5. Decision: Once the reviewer reports have been submitted, an editor or associate editor will carefully consider all the reviews and re-read the paper. At that point the editor will write a decision letter. This could happen quickly for straightforward decisions (i.e. all reviewers recommend "minor" revisions and the editor shares that view), but it can take longer if the decision is more complicated, the editor might even seek additional input from someone on the editorial board, or another reviewer, if s/he thinks it necessary. 

6. Author revision stage: Very few papers are accepted after the end of the first round of review, editors will often ask for at least one round of revisions.  Journals work to different timeframes but it’s not uncommon for journals to ask authors to submit revised versions of their papers within one month of the decision letter if the author received a "minor" revisions decision, and within two to three, if the author has been asked to make "major" revisions. Authors are not always able to re-submit within those timeframes because they have competing professional or personal commitments, and most journals will agree an extension if that's the case.

7. When a revised paper is resubmitted, stages 1 and 2 (as above) are repeated. An editor might send the paper back to reviewers, or s/he might make a final decision without seeking further input from reviewers - it often depends on the nature of the revisions that were requested (more extensive revisions are more likely to go back to reviewers).    

As you can see, there are quite a lot of variables and opportunities for delays to creep in! Editors and journal editorial office staff do their very best to keep everything on track but the peer review process can (and does) take longer than initially expected. Don’t forget that all researchers – whether they are taking on the role of editor, reviewer, or author in relation to a specific paper - have to juggle any publishing-related responsibilities alongside their other professional (and personal) commitments. Delays are never personal.

Authors, understandably, can get really frustrated if they have had to wait a long time for a decision, particularly if it's a reject decision, and they then have to start the process again with another journal. If you’re worried about the length of time your paper has been with a journal, you should consider asking the editorial office, or editor, for information about where your paper is in the peer review process and how long they think the remainder of the process will take.  You could also seek the advice of colleagues in your field who have publishing experience.

The peer review process may seem lengthy and a little convoluted but it plays an important role in scholarly communication. Feedback from reviewers and editors can help authors to substantially develop and improve their papers – editor and reviewer comments are usually worth waiting for!

Dr Fiona Nash, Managing Editor: Academic Publications
Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

 

Peer Review Week is a global event celebrating the essential role that peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality. The theme of Peer Review Week 2018 is “Diversity and Inclusion” and aims to explore a wide range of issues and challenges that this topic presents within peer review. It is running from 10–15 September 2018 with activities taking place around the globe. For more information, see https://peerreviewweek.wordpress.com

 

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