Yes, most reviews are submitted at the deadline. No, that doesn’t justify shorter deadlines

Image: Deadline, by geralt CC 0 via pixabay.com.

Warning: I’m a bit grumpy today.

I’m back tilting at one of my favourite windmills today: requests for manuscript reviews with unreasonably short deadlines.  I’ve explained elsewhere that one should expect the process of peer review to take a while.  Journals would love to compress the process by reducing the time the manuscript spends on the reviewer’s desk – and so they ask for reviews to be returned in 2 weeks, or in 10 days, or less.  As a reviewer, I don’t play this game any more: I simply refuse all requests with deadlines shorter than 3 weeks.

I’ve asked a few editors and journal offices why they give such short deadlines, and they give two kinds of answers: one outcome-based, and one process-based. The outcome-based answer is simply that short deadlines contribute to speedy peer review.  (We’ve gotten ludicrously out of control in our expectations for the speed of peer review, but that’s not my point today.)  The process-based answer is more interesting.  Journal offices point out that most of the reviews they receive are submitted right around the deadline date – just before, or if we’re honest with ourselves, just after.  So, if I’m given a 21-day deadline, the journal office knows that I’ll most likely submit my review on the 20th day, or the 21st, or maybe the 22nd.  Some journal offices then make an error of reasoning: they argue that if I submit a 21-day-deadline review on day 20, then I didn’t need all 21 days.  Had they given me a 10-day deadline, the argument goes, I’d simply have written and submitted my review on day 9.  And one part of this argument is right: it doesn’t take me 20 days to write a review, and if I did it on day 9 I wouldn’t be working harder or faster, only earlier.  No harm in that, right?

I hope the logical flaw in this argument is obvious*.  Yes, I could have done my review on the 9th day instead of the 20th, and it would have taken me exactly the same amount of time.  But to make that possible, some other task would have to be postponed from the 9th day to the 20th.  An earlier deadline doesn’t ask me to do any more work; but it asks me to do it sooner, and that means reprioritizing not just the review in question, but all the other tasks that keep it company on my to-do list.  There are always plenty of those.  I may submit my review on day 20 not because it takes me 19 days to write it, but because it takes 19 days for it to work its way up to becoming the highest-priority item on my list.

To put it a bit pithily:  if you’re an editor, and you ask me for a review on a short deadline, you aren’t flattering me with your belief that I’m smart enough to read and review a paper quickly.  Instead, you’re insulting my students and my colleagues and my family with the claim that what they’re already waiting for me to do is less important than what you’re asking me to do.  Is that the message you really want to send, when you’re asking me to do some work for which you don’t propose to pay me**?

So, yes, you’re right: give me a three-week deadline, and I’ll probably wait and do the work three weeks from now.  That’s how prioritization works.  Take your spot in the queue.

© Stephen Heard  November 1, 2018


*^But it apparently isn’t, or I wouldn’t have been spurred to write this post.

**^Note the phrasing, which is carefully precise.  Work for which an editor doesn’t propose to pay me is not at all the same thing as work for which I’m not being paid – but arguments about that are controversial, and, apparently, largely unwelcome.

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5 thoughts on “Yes, most reviews are submitted at the deadline. No, that doesn’t justify shorter deadlines

  1. amlees

    I would argue that if you have a deadline of 21 days and you submit on day 20, that means you needed 20 to do the job (whether you spent 20 days doing actual work or whether you read it on day 1 and then spent 20 days thinking about it or whether you can only find a ‘window’ in your schedule 20 days from now in which all the work on it doesn’t matter in the slightest; the end result is that you needed 20 days). If they habitually get reviews in in less than 2 weeks, that might justify reducing the deadline, but since they habitually get reviews in 20 days, that means the deadline should be 21 days at the very least.

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  4. the Viking Diva

    This. Nothing irritates me more than a review request (or any other!) with a short turn-around time. it’s reasonable to ask me to do that thing, but as editor you don’t get to set my schedule for it. I have learned to respond by saying when, instead, I can complete it. Most editors are happy to accept my counter-offer, and I stick firmly to that schedule– I’ve pushed back a bit on their presumptions and yet the work still gets done.
    A close second on the irritant list: getting an automated reminder about a review on the weekend.

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