Things that are more important to me than reviewing your manuscript

Warning: I’m grumpy today.

Last week I got a review request from a major open-access journal.  It specified a 10 day deadline.  I thought that seemed a little quick – but the manuscript looked right up my alley, and I could see the beguiling glint of some available time coming up.  So I agreed.  But it turns out 10 days meant 10 calendar days, not 10 business days as I’d assumed, and now I’m late* and getting rather testy autogenerated messages from the editorial office about it.  This makes me rather testy in return.

I usually review fairly quickly, often but not always within 10 days.  At least, I think of that as “fairly quickly”.  It’s not, of course, that it takes me 10 days to do a review – once I sit down to it, it usually takes somewhere between two hours and (rarely) a day.  But that’s more or less irrelevant to my turnaround time, and as an author, and editor, or a journal, you don’t get to expect a turnaround time from me less than about two weeks.  Why?  Because as interesting as your manuscript is to me, it isn’t an emergency, and it isn’t more important than a bunch of other things that are already in my queue.  It isn’t, for example, more important than:

  • the proposal draft my student gave me 5 days ago
  • my family
  • the proposal draft my other student gave me a week ago
  • my curling team that plays every Monday night
  • the thesis chapter my student gave me yesterday
  • the manuscript awaiting revision with my postdoc’s name on it
  • my health
  • the department meeting that’s been scheduled since last month – and the report I’m making to my colleagues at it.

Now, I realize that quite a few of you are thinking “If you’re that busy, why didn’t you just say no?”  Well, given the journal’s unrealistic timeline, maybe I should have said no; but it’s a manuscript that’s right up my alley, and one that I think my comments (mine in particular, I mean) could really improve. Furthermore, if I say “no” to every review request that won’t instantly vault to the top of my priority list, I’ll be saying “no” to all of them.  Which brings me to the other thing quite a few of you are thinking: “Oh, poor baby, he’s busy and he thinks nobody else is”.  Well, no.  I mean, I do think that I’m busy; but I think we’re all that busy.  That means we all have to prioritize, and tasks have to wait in all our queues.  If I need to say no, I expect you will too; and as a corollary, I don’t expect anyone to peer-review my manuscripts in 10 days.

I worry that authors increasingly don’t understand this.  There’s empirical data suggesting that authors have unrealistic and unreasonable expectations for the speed of peer review.  Part of this is natural human impatience.  But a big piece of the blame has to fall on journals, and more specifically, on a crop of new(ish) journals that attempt to compete for submissions based on speed.  Such journals have deliberately stoked those unreasonable author expectations.  In doing so, they’ve made a lot of people unnecessarily stressed, and probably weakened the peer-review system as a nice little bonus.

Nothing I’ve ever written has been so earthshatteringly urgent that it couldn’t wait a few weeks to slot into its peer reviewers’ queues.  Nothing I’ve ever reviewed has been that urgent, either (and if authors think it is, they can always post preprints).  So wait your turn, Major Unnamed Open-Access Journal.  I’ll get to you – soon enough.

© Stephen Heard ( April 10, 2017

*^The present tense isn’t really appropriate here. I didn’t write this post in the moment; rather, I scribbled a few notes and then stuck it in a folder to finish later. After all, the things in my list are more important than writing a blog post, too.  And of course you’re reading the post later still.  But my verb tenses were getting all tangled, so I wrote as if  I’d finished it in the moment. That may not be true, but it has plenty of truthiness.


22 thoughts on “Things that are more important to me than reviewing your manuscript

  1. jeffollerton

    Very well said, couldn’t agree more. Journal expectations are very wide of the mark. So a related question is: have times to publication speeded up proportionately? If reviews really are coming in quicker, shouldn’t the time it takes to publish also be quicker? I don’t get the sense that they are for many journals. Is there anything published on this?


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      There must be, although I can’t point you to it. I would suggest anecdotally, though, that the slack in the reviewing time was taken out years ago, when we moved from post to email. Most of the time now is inevitable administrative time, and shortening the out-for-review period from (let’s say) 3 weeks to 2 weeks has a pretty minor effect on total time to publication.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Chandra Moffat

    I just reviewed for an open access journal with the same timeline. I received three emails reminding me to do the review within a week, one of which was a ‘please respond’ from an Associate Editor (not the Subject Editor who sent me the invitation). Leaving the reviewers feeling stressed and annoyed is not optimal, and admittedly, I rushed in preparing my review a bit because of the pressure. Is that really what we want? Next time I will probably think twice about accepting an invitation with a 10 day turn around, and I expect others will too, making it that much harder for editors to find reviewers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Catherine Scott

    Sometimes it can take a couple of weeks or more to get comments back from coauthors or supervisors on a manuscript–it seems pretty unreasonable to expect peer-reviewers to be even faster! The shortest timeline I’ve so far been given in my (relatively limited) experience reviewing was 2 weeks, and I think that’s already asking a lot. Of course, I’ve sent reviews back within a few days when they were due after 3 or 4 weeks, because the requests came at particularly convenient times, but it’s unreasonable to expect folks to be able to easily fit a review into such a short window.


  4. Elizabeth Moon

    Going to online communication overall has changed expectations in the wider world and mobile devices have made it worse. I’ve been scolded for not replying to an email w/in the same day (once, within the same 2 hour period. Occasions for communicating with that person no longer occur.) Everyone needs the reminder that the person they’re corresponding with is not their employee, has a life of their own and other obligations to fulfill. (If the person IS their employee, and it’s during office hours, the possibility still exists that someone at the next desk just had a heart attack, there’s a leak dripping water on the computer, or a backhoe nearby just severed a T-1 line. ) We have more efficient, faster communication than in the days of paper mail and telephones with operators (my childhood) when it could take over an hour to make a long-distance connection—but the people we communicate with still deserve consideration and respect.

    Where the response may determine the quality of a scientific paper–or whether it’s published at all–respect for the reviewer’s already complicated life and schedule is essential if the paper is to be reviewed at the highest level the reviewer can manage. Coming to it annoyed and frustrated risks having a hasty and less accurate review.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Chris Mebane

    The 10-day review window used by PLoS One is a default setting that editors can change, but few bother. That according to a section editor friend when I groused at him about this. Since in 2016, the median time from submission to acceptance of PLoS One articles was 132 days, they could probably afford to set the default to 21 days.

    Retraction Watch recently featured an in depth interview with Joerg Heber, the new PLoS One EIC.  In the hope that he might check back and see what the commentators on his interview had to say, I included the question, “How about changing the default 10-day review window to something like 21-days that allows time to read, track down/read some related work, check some analyses, write it up?”  Alas, no reply.  Could always try writing, I suppose.


  6. Manu Saunders

    Completely agree. The couple of times I’ve returned my review by their deadline, it’s then taken at least another couple of weeks for the editor to send out the decision letter. It should work both ways! 🙂


  7. Peter Apps

    Maybe there are some nuances to authors’ expectations that journals could take into account. The worse of all waits are the long ones that end with rejection and referees’ comments that are of no use in improving the paper, and on the other end of the scale I don’t mind waiting a while for a “revise” decision that has a set of useful and explicit comments to go with it. As a referee I sometimes get submissions that are so dire that they cannot be fixed by peer review, and I can deal with them very quickly (as in an hour or so) by recommending rejection and pointing out a few of the most glaring errors. At the other end of that scale I have been through three or four iterations of corrections and other revisions for papers that I think are important but need a lot of fixing, in a process that stretches over months.

    Maybe the system needs to allow the reviewers some flexibility in setting their target dates – the “Request to review” e-mail drops into your box, you have a look at the paper and decide where it falls on the need-for-fixing scale, and choose a turnaround time from a menu according to your own schedule and anticipated workload. Admittedly first impressions might be misleading – I quite frequently find fatal errors in a careful reading of a submission that looked reasonable at first sight, but these could be accommodated by referees being able to update their target dates online. This provides editors with some kind of feedback on progress when otherwise they would be in the dark about whether a referee had even got around to looking at the submission.


  8. Pingback: How long should peer review take? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  9. Miriam Richards

    I’ve turned down several of these short timeline requests recently. But I’ve found a trick to use in cases where I might like to do the review – the timeline starts when you agree, so you can stretch it by a few days to a week by not accepting immediately. This is inconvenient for the editor but a reasonable response to an unreasonable request (and I say that as an editor). And if you feel guilty about this, don’t. As an editor, I’ve come to realize how many successful scientists take their time about responding, are blase about deadlines, or ignore journal requests altogether!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Como responder uma revisão | Sobrevivendo na Ciência

  11. Eric Lamb

    In my experience as a PLOS one editor I always try to change the review period up to at least 15 days. It would be nice if I didn’t have to remember…

    Regardless, there are a couple of places where ms. turnaround time could be improved. Two that I encounter as an editor:
    1) potential reviewers who wait until the end of the invitation period (6 days) before declining. If you can’t do it please say so right away, so the next potential reviewer in the line can be contacted.
    2) a flaw in the editorial manager software that prevents your vacation / on fieldwork / on sabbatical autoreply from getting back to me. If I knew you were unavailable I would ask someone else instead of waiting the 6 days for the autouninvite.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Mike FowlerMike Fowler

    Some (many?) Editors will be happy enough just to find a reviewer that they’ll gladly accept it if you agree on the condition of setting your own (reasonable) deadline. A bird in the hand is worth two mixed metaphors in time saving nine.


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  14. Pingback: I refuse all review requests with deadlines < 3 weeks. Here’s why, and how. | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  15. Lauro

    Good arguments. Nevertheless, the rule is simple: if you accept the deadline, it is a deal. If you don’t agree with the deadline, just say “no”.


  16. Pingback: Yes, most reviews are submitted at the deadline. No, that doesn’t justify shorter deadlines | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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