Image: “Waiting”, Edgar Degas, circa 1882 (pastel on paper). Collection of the Getty Center, Los Angeles. Public domain.
I’m sure it’s happened to you. It’s happened to me. With excitement, you punch the “submit” button, and celebrate your manuscript being off your desk and into peer review. And then you wait. And wait. And you wait some more. Sometimes, it feels like you’re waiting forever. When that happens, is it appropriate to e-mail the journal office to ask what’s holding things up? And if so, how long should you wait?
Yes, it’s perfectly appropriate; but you should probably wait a lot longer than you’d like.
Longer answer, in two parts:
(1) Is it appropriate to e-mail the journal office?
Absolutely. In any process, things occasionally go wrong, or at least go on too long. A manuscript can be assigned to an editor who’s away; a reviewer can agree to review and then disappear; an editor can get behind and let the notification that your MS is ready for decision slip down their email inbox until it’s no longer in everyday view. These things happen much less frequently than they used to*, with most journals using tracking systems with plenty of automated checks and reminders, but they happen nonetheless. There’s someone in the journal office (usually a “managing editor” or a managing editor’s assistant) whose job it is to check on such things, once alerted to the possibility, and you aren’t doing anything inappropriate by asking (politely) for a check to be made.
(2) How long should you wait?
Ah, here I’m going to disappoint you. I get asked this question frequently. I always reply “How long ago did you submit?”, and when I hear the answer, I almost always respond with “wait longer”. A lot of people greatly underestimate the time it takes for a manuscript to go through peer review. That isn’t just my anecdotal impression: there are data on this, and they’re shocking.
Good and helpful peer review takes a while. I think a best-case estimate is about 7 weeks from submission – and remember, that’s the best-case estimate; it will be utterly reasonable for many manuscripts to take longer. So I don’t query my own manuscripts for at least 14 weeks – longer if I can manage to suppress my impatience. And that’s what I suggest for you too; and yes, I can hear your exasperated sighs. Sorry about that.
Could there be exceptions? Yes, I think so. If you’re an early career scientist with a major deadline – a tenure file due, say, or your first major grant application; and if the paper in question is genuinely critical to the thing with the deadline – then I couldn’t hold it against you if you cut that 14-week suggestion down by a few weeks. Not down to 7 weeks, mind you, or to less; and if you take advantage of this exception clause more than a couple of times in your career I think you might be pushing your welcome.
Now let me stir the pot a little. Some journals promise rapid turnaround; and many journals demand what I think are unreasonably fast responses from their peer reviewers. What if we all agreed to take them at their word, and to email them daily starting the very first day after their promised turnaround? Wouldn’t that be delicious? Wouldn’t it serve them right? Wouldn’t it…well, actually, wouldn’t it be pretty good evidence that I’m childish and petty and shouldn’t let myself take my own soapboxes too seriously? OK, let’s not do this; but it was sure nice to think about doing it for a moment.
Given all that’s involved in the peer review and editorial process, it’s amazing that it works as smoothly as it does. But of course I realize how satisfying it is to vent about the times it goes wrong and drags on and on and on and on – and I realize how entertaining it is to read about it. So let’s make a deal: tell us your own horror stories in the Replies; but for every horror story you tell, raise a glass at your next opportunity and toast all the journal staff that got your other submissions through in good time.
© Stephen Heard August 7, 2018
Any journal managing editors want to chime in on my 14-week rule suggestion? Please do – the Replies are open for you!
*^Back in the day, we used to put four paper copies of the manuscript in a manila envelope and submit by snail mail (except we just called it “mail”). If that envelope got lost along the way, you’d never know, and neither would the journal office. It could take months to even notice the problem. And yes, we walked to school in the snow in bare feet and it was uphill both ways. Get off my lawn.