journal review time problems and how to fix them

About two weeks ago, I asked readers to describe their experiences with the journal system. I provided a list of journals and asked people to indicate how long it takes for them to get decisions. You can still vote if you want to.

Here’s what I take away from the exercise. Since people only tended to vote for the top journals, there isn’t enough data to say much about the smaller regional & specialty journals. This only applies to the most visible journals:

  • The good news: Many journals seem to be doing a good job. The modal and mean answers for many journals seem to be “0-3 months” or “4-6 months.” We aren’t yet at the biomedical sciences model where most papers are judged in 8 weeks or less, but we definitely aren’t in economics hell, where the editors at top econ journals will routinely hold papers for a year or more.
  • The bad news: There is important variation between journals and within journals. The worst offender seems to be Theory and Society. Almost nothing comes back quick.  No one reported getting back anything in 3 months and most take at half a year. The AJS has enormous variance. Some papers come back quick, while others can take a year or more. Also, AJS was singled out by at least two commenters.

I’d also recommend Jenn Lena’s and Omar’s comments. Jenn pointed out that journals depend on editors. True. When I started doing sociology, Social Forces was notorious for keeping articles for a year or more, as was Gender and Society. Now, these journals seem to be doing well, even though a few people reported 1 year + (!) for Social Forces. Omar focused on journal status. Top journals have more resources and competent editors.

I give our journals get a B+ rating: doing good but there’s room for improvement. Here’s what I recommend to editors at slow journals. I speak from experience as the student associate editor at AJS, managing editor of Sociological Methodology, and an author:

  • If you haven’t done so, switch to online submission. Online submission sites handle a lot of the nitty gritty and reduce clerical errors.
  • Desk rejections: About 10-20% papers are not even competent or simply don’t fit. Get rid of these papers ASAP. If you need to justify the desk rejection, have your associate editors/editorial board write a short note.
  • Choose editorial board members wisely. Yes, put a few stars on the mast head for prestige, but most of the editorial board should be chosen for professionalism. Same goes for reviewers – don’t pick famous people. Pick well behaved people.
  • Slow papers: If people refuse to review a paper, then simply tell the author that you are having problems getting reviews. Don’t sit on it for months and months and make the author angry. Communication is a good thing. Then give the author an option – we can try again or you can honorably take the paper to a new journal.
  • Reasonable reviews: Don’t wait for five reviews. Most papers can reasonably be judged with 2-3 reviews. If the reviews are ambiguous, be the decider. As an editor, you’re the expert. Only solicit extra reviews if it is really, really outside your area of knowledge and the reviews are really split.
  • Bug reviewers – a lot!
  • The author’s right of retraction: A more radical policy. A journal that can’t produce a judgment in 6 months or so has surrendered its right to an article. The author should be able to take it to another venue and have it be considered as “submitted to only one journal.”

If you use these rules, most of your submissions should be complete in 6 months or less.


Written by fabiorojas

August 30, 2011 at 12:50 am

Posted in academia, fabio

17 Responses

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  1. As an editor for Sociological Methodology and Research (top six Soc journal and top six
    Soc Science Methods journal in terms of impact rating) for 16 years, I fully agree with the above
    recommendations. The big issue is reviewers. I always thought we should have a central database indicating who was willing to review papers and who wasn’t and as editors refuse to consider papers by people who never review (and there are many). Reviewing (quickly) is a professional obligation. Unfortunately, there are many free riders.


    Chris Winship

    August 30, 2011 at 2:19 pm

  2. […] has a nice post on the problem of excessive journal review times, one of my favorite […]


  3. “have it be considered as “submitted to only one journal.”” …is this important? Who keeps track of whether a paper was submitted to more than one journal?


    Jessica Smith

    August 31, 2011 at 12:25 pm

  4. “Who keeps track of whether a paper was submitted to more than one journal?” Your conscience, professional responsibility, and that little box you check when you submit the paper to a journal.



    August 31, 2011 at 6:20 pm

  5. Re: Jessica and Teppo’s comments:

    Many orgtheory readers would likely be interested in a much-discussed recent case in econ where an author had ignored this rule and paid a (justifiably) high price. See here. There’s also some additional background on the case available here.


    ed walker

    August 31, 2011 at 10:29 pm

  6. Ed: I think Bruno Frey is a different case than what Teppo and Jessica suggested. I think they meant submit one paper to multiple journals, law school style. Bruno Frey, apparently, published the same paper over and over. “Self-plagiarism.” I have advocated law school style multiple submissions, but I am against self-plagiarism.



    September 1, 2011 at 1:52 am

  7. Fabio (hi!): It’s clear that the Frey case is particularly egregious, and a case where the answer to “who keeps track” is also, it seems, the editors.


    ed walker

    September 1, 2011 at 2:50 am

  8. This post gets to the nub of it: it all depends on editors. Many are hopeless. See:

    Jessica: Why you should not submit to more than one journal:
    a) Moral reason: Processing an article makes work for editors and reviewers. You are wasting their time if your submission isn’t serious
    b) Practical reason :high likelihood you’ll get caught out if same reviewer asked to review paper by different journals. And then you’ll get banned, and your reputation will be ruined.


    Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee)

    September 1, 2011 at 6:40 am

  9. I’m thinking Jessica meant submitted to one journal successively, not concurrently. And I’m with her… who really cares if it was submitted to more than one journal one after another?



    September 1, 2011 at 5:35 pm

  10. The desk rejection thing is huge. I am a reviewer for a journal with a ludicrously long turnaround time, and it’s because the editor turns nothing away. You could submit a paper in the field of theoretical physics and it would get sent out for review. It drives me nuts to review things that can be rejected based on the first paragraph alone, and I know our submitters are getting tired of our wait times.



    September 3, 2011 at 5:00 pm

  11. […] provocative, but interesting piece about the peer review process. The author even suggests that if a journal has not given a decision within 6 months, they […]


  12. Six months may seem a reasonable turnaround time for a journal, but remember how many times we have to wait to hear if an article is accepted. I have received only excellent reviews for an article that I submitted to Sociological Inquiry. I waited almost 6 months to get a “revise and resubmit” then waited 4 months to receive an “accepted with minor revisions.” I have now waited a month to hear if the minor revisions are acceptable. Once the paper is officially accepted, I am sure it will take at least a year to be published. While I am tenured, I would love to see my work in print and worry about young scholars who can be forced out of academia by such slow responses.



    September 12, 2011 at 8:54 pm

  13. Another way to fix journal review times would be to have Bruno Frey stop over-burdening peer reviewers by having each of his papers published three times (and probably reviewed even more than that).



    September 12, 2011 at 9:16 pm

  14. I totally agree with your recommendations.

    I’ve found that the review process expands to fill the time allotted. If an editor asks me to review a piece and gives me 3 months to return it, I go straight to my calendar and write “XYZ Journal review due” the day before the 3 month deadline. What happens, then, is that I wait until the week it’s due and finally get around to it. If was given 2 weeks to review something, I probably would, or I would respond to the editor quickly and say I don’t think I can get it done.

    As an editor of a new journal, I’ve been asking reviewers to tell me in 3 days whether they can do the review within 6 weeks time. If they say yes, I send them the manuscript, bug them at week 5 and again two days before the 6 week mark, and so far so good. Reviewers take a long time because they aren’t being asked to move any faster. Ask them if they’re able to move faster, and if they say yes, then don’t give them a huge window of time. I’ve always wondered why that never seems to happen.


    Daren C. Brabham

    November 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm

  15. […] science. The current publishing paradigm has come under fire recently, with many improvements being proposed. There has been an explosion in science blogging, which is a great way for people to get their work […]


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