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December 29, 2014 / jpschimel

Why journals sometimes are slow processing papers: look in the mirror

As a Chief Editor, I often get requests like: “We need a few more weeks to address the comments from reviewer #1? I have been travelling and haven’t been able to resolve with my co-authors the last issue the reviewer raised.” Such inquiries always raise the question of how I should respond.

When considering the individual request in isolation, the answer should obviously be “of course.” It isn’t much time and I’d much rather authors get the paper right. This is a service job, and my responsibility is to support the community. Supporting authors makes being an editor satisfying, makes papers better, and it strengthens the journal.

But prospective authors decide where to submit papers based, in part, on the time it takes a journal to process papers—and the statistics available to assess that are the times from initial submission to acceptance and publication. If authors perceive a journal’s metrics to be poor and processing to be slow, they may send their most exciting work elsewhere. So approving an individual request for extra time weakens the journal.

I have been anointed with the responsibility of being one of the Chief Editors for the leading journal in my field and have the obligation to pass it on at least as well respected as I received it. So maintaining the statistics is important, but at what cost to serving individual authors’ needs? Should I be a hard-ass to ensure our statistics stay good? Should I act like an airline—close airplanes’ doors on time even when there are passengers sprinting through the airport connecting from a flight that just landed, even when the winds are favorable and the flight will still land over ½ hour early? If I had to chose the statistics over the sprinting passengers, I’d rather quit.

I will always prioritize actual individuals over impersonal statistics, I accepted the work of being an editor to serve my colleagues, even those I’ve never met. I have and always will give extra time to authors and reviewers who ask reasonably. I once even deliberately held a manuscript in limbo for the better part of a year to serve the needs of a student—it was clear that with a major revision it could be a nice paper, but this person was moving to a new position and wouldn’t be able to get that done for a long time, but for institutional politics worried that if the paper were rejected, it could jeopardize their position. I agreed to hold the paper in limbo until the new version was ready. When the time came, I declined the original version and slotted the “new” version back into the system—it was published with little fuss following a quick and easy review. Time-to-acceptance for published papers stayed good, but that one case put a dent in our time-to-decline stats. Would you have me treat you otherwise?

Potential authors, however, don’t see these interactions—they just see the overall stats and assume that if the numbers are bad it’s because the “journal” isn’t being efficient.

I admit that there are times when I have been laggard about some editorial work; for reasons including work overload, proposal deadlines, even vacation and just life–journals are not inanimate entities but teams of people who usually have other responsibilities.

Typically, however, what takes the longest time in the processing cycle is rarely me as editor. It’s getting people out in the reviewer community to respond to requests to review, and then to deliver, on time, reviews they agree to do.

I am always amazed at how many scientists simply ignore requests to review. That can eat a week or more as editors wait, send out a reminder about the request, and then wait a little more to make sure the potential reviewer got the request. Is it really that hard to just hit “decline” if you’re not going to do the review? Do you have any clue how much it would smooth and speed things for everyone if we all could just remember to do that?

And then many of us can be terrible about getting reviews done once we’ve agreed to do them—I regularly have to send multiple personal reminders about due reviews. I often find myself on the horns of a dilemma, balancing the chances that one more round of nagging and guilt will kick loose a useful review vs. the chances that I’d be better off abandoning hope and starting the process over again trying to get someone to agree to do a review and then to deliver it on time. If I go that route I could, however, easily be back at the nagging and pleading stage, but just a month or more later.

So in discussing journal speed, please consider several things:

  1. Are you pushing editors to be ever more hard-assed about deadlines and being unsympathetic to your individual needs?
  2. Are you thinking about the journal as some faceless thing, rather than as us, your colleagues down the hall, and even you, yourself? Journals are based on peer review, after all, and if peers are slow, journals will be too.
  3. If you want journals to be fast in processing your papers, you must equally be fast in doing reviews for others.

When you gripe or hear someone else griping about how long it takes a journal to process your manuscript, remember the old saying from the comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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3 Comments

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  1. Meredith Warshaw / Dec 31 2014 4:31 pm

    Too bad we’re not in the same field – I really enjoy reviewing and miss doing it (switching research areas means editors haven’t found me yet).

    I sympathize with the difficulties of finding reviewers. We once waiting months for a paper to be reviewed, and it came back with reviewers labeled something like #1, #4, and #6 – and #6’s review was in incomprehensible mangled English.

  2. Emilio M. Bruna / Jan 20 2015 4:08 pm

    Great post! And more or leas the same bottleneck at Biotropica…

    http://biotropica.org/time-to-decision/

    And S I write this I remeber I am overdue on a review cor another journal!

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