I refuse all review requests with deadlines < 3 weeks. Here’s why, and how.

Warning: another grumpy one

I’m seeing it more and more: requests to review manuscripts with ludicrously short deadlines.  Sometimes 10 days, sometimes 7, sometimes one week (5 business days).  And I see editors on Twitter bragging about a paper they’ve shepherd through the entire review process in 5 days, or a week, or two weeks.  I want all this to stop.

I’ve posted before about the reasons why, and I won’t rehash them in detail here.  In “How long should peer review take?” I show that scientists have completely unreasonable expectations for how quickly a manuscript can be handled.  In “Things that are more important to me than reviewing your manuscript”, I point out that a review request goes into my queue with everything else, and it doesn’t get to jump that queue ahead of things that have already been waiting weeks.  And that’s not even considering the time to actually read the manuscript and comment thoughtfully. Good peer review takes time.  I could go on at some length about this, but I’ll spare you that (at least, I’ll spare you that today).

What do I do about this?  Well, in the past, I’ve been ineffectually inconsistent.  I’ve grumbled privately.  I’ve written blog posts (essentially subtweeting – is subblogging a word? – the journal).  I’ve sometimes declined to review, without explaining; sometimes declined, explaining why; sometimes accepted and ignored the too-short deadline; sometimes accepted and beaten the too-short deadline.  This isn’t helping, and I don’t think I’ve been treating journals (and authors) fairly.  So I’m newly determined to be consistent and resolute*Every time I get a request to review with a deadline less than 3 weeks, I’m going to decline it.  Assuming the manuscript is one I’d otherwise agree to review, I’m going to send the following note of explanation:

Dear Editor,

I’d be happy to review this manuscript, but not with a XX-day deadline.  For several reasons, I believe such short deadlines are unreasonable and work to the detriment of science. They foster unhealthy attitudes about the low value of peer review.  They encourage scientists to have unrealistic expectations for the speed of review and publication.  They drive journals to lower quality by competing based on speed rather than on the value added through peer review.  Finally, it’s unreasonable to ask academics to prioritize such a fast review over all the other tasks and responsibilities already waiting on their plates.

So, I’d be happy to review with a 3-week deadline.  Let me know if that suits you.

Sincerely,

Steve Heard

I’ve just done this for the first time.  The response, within hours (I’m paraphrasing): “oh sure, 3 weeks is perfectly fine”.  (Which of course makes me wonder why I was asked to review in half that time in the first place!)  It’s a small blow against the system, I’ll acknowledge; but small blows are all I’ve got.

© Stephen Heard  March 6 2018, but the letter text is released CC0; you’re welcome to borrow it if you agree with me.

UPDATE: Alejandro Gonzalez V makes a really good point, via Twitter, about this.  He suggests that “those adhering to [Heard’s policy] also refuse to send their manuscripts to journals demanding reviews in < 3 weeks.  If they don’t, then they are leeching from the system. Such tactics will only work if authors also boycott such journals”.  I completely see this point, although I have to admit that I’m reluctant to go this far.  That’s mostly because an awful lot of journals would be unavailable to me, and more importantly, to my coauthors.  Instead, I propose that I should specify in my cover letter than I neither expect nor want review in under three weeks, explaining the reasons as I have above.  I think this falls a bit short of Alejandro’s suggestion, and I’m honestly unsure if it’s a reasonable compromise, or if I just want to have my cake and eat it too.


*^Part of this will have to be making darn sure that when I’m the editor, I’m not asking for reviews faster than I’m willing to do them myself.  One journal I edit for has a default deadline in its Editorial Manager system that’s less than 3 weeks, and I need to be sure to remember to change it every time.  It’s going to be embarrassing when I (inevitably) forget.

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22 thoughts on “I refuse all review requests with deadlines < 3 weeks. Here’s why, and how.

  1. Mike Kokkinn

    I think yours is a very rational decision. My wife, during the course of her job at the university, often had to attend meetings at quite a high level in the administration. She would always come back and say to me, “You academics never say no!”
    Were the particular paper under review absolutely error-free and stunningly original, a couple of weeks may be enough. However many submissions require painstaking checking, background reading, recalculation etc. And quite often the decision to recommend publication balances on a difficult knife edge. You wouldn’t do this for fun, let alone for nothing, were you not one of those species who can’t say no.

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  2. sjamesocglnet

    Everyone has a deadline. The point to always remember is: How can our deadlines intersect so that we both get it done in a ‘compromise time?”

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  3. cinnabarreflections

    I think the deadline is set by the editorial board, so the subject or associate editor has no control over it. Each subject editor then enforces this (or not), and I have never had an editor refuse an extension, perhaps because they know that giving someone an extra week or two may be faster than trying to find a replacement. The deadline is pretty meaningless anyway, as if I get a request, then wait 1 or 2 weeks before replying, I still get the same time to review! Which is reasonable, because I may not have seen the request if I am traveling (summer submissions are always much slower). As a subject editor of Environmental Entomology for 10 years+, the main delays were often in finding reviewers who would bother to respond. I had papers where the review process was delayed by up to several months because review requests went unanswered. Moral: If you get a request, it is better to respond negatively immediately than to sit on it for weeks, leaving the editor hanging. A quick response like the one you outline is very likely to get an affirmative response, i.e., an extension.

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  4. Manu Saunders

    I do this with all the journals that give 10/14 day deadlines and they’ve never had a problem with an extension. Recently I got a request to review a revised ms I had reviewed previously – I use the word ‘request’ lightly, because the email actually said (paraphrased): ‘here’s the revised manuscript you reviewed before. Please tell us within 3 days if it’s now suitable’. I declined with ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have time.’ After a couple of days they came back with ‘that’s ok, when can you get it to us?’

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  5. dereksarovich

    I had a fairly recent request to review a paper and return my comments within one week. I accepted and four days later was hassled by the editor to complete my review because the second reviewer had already returned their feedback. The editor also shared the second reviewer’s feedback with me which seemed pretty dodgy. I completed the review but I’m not inclined to review for that journal again.

    I like the idea of requesting 3-week turn-around though. It seems much more reasonable.

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. Peter Apps

    There is one class of paper that I gladly accept short deadlines on – the absolute rubbish that was poorly conceived, shoddily executed, badly analysed and incoherently presented. They get turned around in a day or less.

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  7. Terry McGlynn

    I was talking with someone who has deep experience with this stuff, and the take-home message he had (based on data, not just intuition) is that people tend to just do reviews when the deadline looms. So if you give someone 10 days, they’ll do it in 10, and if you give them a month, they’ll do it in a month. If this is true, then by shortening the time allowed for the request, then it just speeds up the process. The only problem with this, though, is that people are less likely to say ‘yes’ when there is a short window — this is still true even if they’ll do it at the deadline anyway, whenever it is! I think this is a behavioral economic situation, meaning that there are a lot of non-rational actors, and I realize that I’m no different.

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Terry, I think this is – at the same time – both completely plausible and still problematic. I agree, people tend to do things at deadline! But I still think setting those deadlines so short does damage, of the sorts I mentioned. So: the behavioural science provides a reason to have deadlines; but it’s silent about what a reasonable deadline might be. I think….

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    2. Mike Fowler

      I think Am Nat published their data on this in an Editorial a few years back. IIRC, there was a mode + bellish curve around the (3 week?) deadline, and a totally surprising and somewhat fishy peak at 1 day! I would rather wait for the 3 weeks reviews than the 1 day ones!

      Liked by 1 person

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    3. Brian McGill

      Yes – exactly this. We just shortened GEB from 3 weeks to 2 weeks. Of course we absolutely are happy to accept people who write back asking for 3 weeks. But shortening our requested turnaround by a week has resulted in 6 days faster average response times with no measurable decrease in review quality.

      An awful lot of people (including me) manage reviews by prioritizing a review only when I get a warning notice.

      I would never accept shortening the turnaround to a week or 10 days. But is 3 weeks vs 2 weeks so fundamentally different in people’s abilities to manage their schedules nor the amount of time people will spend on their review?

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Wim Crusio

        Agree completely. At Behavioral and Brain Functions we give 2 weeks, which I think is absolutely reasonable. Shorter is problematic, longer just invites people to put the manuscript on a to-do stack and forget about it until they get a reminder that they’re a week over due…

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  9. Schinia honesta

    I have been doing this for quite some time. I was never refused the extension I asked (usually one week, sometimes two). I guess that these days editors prefer to have a commitment, regardless of the deadline.

    However, I don’t use a hard threshold. Sometimes, I feel like ten days are enough, in other cases, I feel like I need a month. I am just telling the editor how much I think I need, then the editor decides whether my opinion worth the wait or not. No need to overthink it.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Wim Crusio

      You’re the type of reviewer I like (and probably most editors)! I don’t mind people asking for an extension, as long as I can be reasonably sure to get their review within a reasonable amount of time. After all, authors are waiting and we all want to get comments on our article back without undue delay. Nowadays the problem is to find willing reviewers, which sometimes can take quite a while…

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