How long should you wait before nudging the journal about your manuscript in review?

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?

 

Short answer:

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.

 

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10 thoughts on “How long should you wait before nudging the journal about your manuscript in review?

  1. Markus Eichhorn

    The other advantage nowadays is that authors can log in and see what stage their manuscript is at. I used to have a three-month rule, similar to yours, at which point I would send a polite query. These days I keep an eye on progress and only bother the editor if it looks like the manuscript has got stuck somewhere that shouldn’t take very long (e.g. waiting for a decision). I’m not inclined to hassle if it’s in review because good reviews take time, and good reviewers take time to find.

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  2. Perpetua Turner

    I too use a three month rule, use author login to track progress and contact the journal publisher with queries. My rule is based on the time I have been allocated when operating as a peer-reviewer and experience from past review of my own papers However, it’s recently blown out. Nine months for the first review, and add to that 5 months now after re-submission. But who’s counting?

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  3. Christopher Eliot

    I think it’s good practice for journals to communicate their anticipated timelines to authors on accepting a submission for review. Something like: “We ask reviewers to try to submit reports within four weeks, and we try to complete review within six weeks. Of course, that isn’t always possible, but last year our review processes averaged 40 days. Please feel free to contact us for an update if you haven’t heard anything six weeks from now.” It sets expectations transparently, it eliminates authors potentially feeling guilty about nagging, and it would be a safety mechanism if something were ever to fall through the cracks. (Accordingly, that’s what I do for the journal PTPBio.)

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      1. Christopher Eliot

        And I should have said, since it’s more to your question: journals should really communicate not only their expected timelines, but also when on the timeline it’d start to be a good idea (even welcome) to inquire about review status.

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  4. Kevin Floate

    As a past EiC for a journal, I recall a case for which 22 invitations to review a manuscript were declined. I advised the authors several times of the difficulty in finding reviewers and gave them the chance to withdraw their submission for submission to another journal where they might have more luck. They declined, we kept sending out invitations to review, and ultimately unsubmitted the manuscript after a period of several months.

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    1. the Viking Diva

      @Kevin Floate, could you explain this more? I’m curious about the basis for such a decision, as you would justify it to the authors. This seems to put ‘difficulty finding reviewers’ on their shoulders rather than yours – but doesn’t the editor accept responsibility for getting the peer review, if you don’t give it a desk reject up front, based on fit to the journal’s content? A desk reject is disappointing but at least it moves things along quickly.

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  5. Kevin Floate

    As EiC, I had to juggle obligations to the journal, the authors, the editorial board, and reviewers. In this role, I would ‘desk reject’ about 30% of submissions within 2-3 days after submission. Cases for desk reject included inappropriate topic for journal, failure to meet minimum requirements as identified in the ‘Instructions to Authors’, plagiarism, incomplete or missing material (e.g., tables, figures), reports of ‘preliminary’ research, or writing of such poor quality that critical scientific review was not possible. I would always indicate to authors the reason for the desk reject, which allowed authors to either quickly revise and submit to another journal, or resubmit to our journal. It also prevented the editorial board and potential reviewers from being flooded with submissions that were unlikely to pass a critical scientific review.

    Submissions that were not rejected at the desk were forwarded to Subject Editors to send out for review. I would regular monitor the progress of submissions assigned to SEs and ‘nudge’ them if I felt the review process was taking too long. Sometimes the SEs were travelling and were not responding to emails. Other times, reviewers accepted invitations to review, but then missed the deadline to provide their reviews by a month or more. And many (perhaps most) ‘invitations to review’ are rejected. In my experience, it is common to receive 2 reviews for every 5-6 invitations to review. Regardless, I would ‘step-in’ as necessary to ‘prod’ things along.

    Most electronic submission systems will automatically send out 2-3 emails to SEs to remind them to find reviewers, to potential reviewers to respond to ‘invitations to review’, or to reviewers that miss deadlines to submit their reviews. But some of these may be flagged as ‘spam’ and be automatically directed into the ‘deleted’ box. And when the message reminders stop, the slow speed of some submissions may go unnoticed… except by the authors. For this reason, I fully support the suggestion to send a polite enquiry to the journal after 3 months as to the progress of one’s submission.

    RE: my unsubmission of a someone’s manuscript after it had received 22 rejections for ‘invitation to review’. This was the extreme exception. The journal asks the author(s) to suggest potential reviewers. Journal policy is to use only one of the names suggested by the author, plus 1-2 other reviewers. For this submission, we ended up approaching and were rejected by the six ‘suggested’ reviewers + 16 other reviewers.

    Most journals stipulate that submitted manuscripts cannot be considered if they are in review with another journal. For this reason, I contacted the authors 2-3 times during the process asking if they wanted to withdraw their paper and resubmit elsewhere. They declined. But after some 8 months and not yet having a single review, I decided that it was in the best interests of the authors and the journal to unsubmit the paper.

    Remember that journals track all kinds of metrics; e.g., the number of submissions, rate of rejection, time in review, time from acceptance to publication, longest time in submission, etc. These metrics influence the decisions of authors of where to submit their papers. Having a manuscript in the system for such a long time with little apparent hope of eventual review or even acceptance seemed counterproductive.

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