Scientist Sees Squirrel

Things that are more important to me than reviewing your manuscript

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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:

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 (sheard@unb.ca) 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.

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