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:
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.
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.