This article is based on a blog post from June 2012. All information was correct at the time of posting but may be superseded by the time you read it. We have updated the article slightly and aim to revise it fully soon.
Journals vary a lot in how long they take to publish accepted papers.
Publication speed is one factor that many authors take into account when choosing a journal. The time from submission to publication in a peer reviewed journal can be split into three phases:
- The time from submission from the first decision
- The time needed for the authors to revise
- The time from acceptance to publication
The second of these cannot generally be controlled by the journal, because different papers need different amounts of time to revise and the personal circumstances of the authors can affect the time needed. So only the first and third phases should be used to judge the journal. I cover submission to first decision time in a separate post and will focus on post-acceptance speed here. By ‘publication’ I mean the first time the paper is made publicly available, whether online or in print.
What happens after a paper is accepted?
Most journals have variations on a standard procedure: copyediting, typesetting, sending proofs to the authors, checking the proofs, and conversion to various formats (such as XML, HTML and pdf). For print journals, there are extra steps of compiling the pdf files into an issue and preparing them for printing – these steps don’t usually affect the time to online publication, but see below for exceptions to this.
Copyediting involves a professional editor (sometimes employed by the journal, but very often a freelancer), who reads the paper carefully and ensures that it is accurate, clear, readable, in correct English and in the journal’s house style. Typesetting involves laying out the paper in the journal’s format for print or pdf, with the correct fonts and symbols and with the figures at their final sizes. Some journals use the figures as the authors provide them, others edit or even redraw, and most at least check that the figures fit with the accompanying text.
After typesetting (or sometimes before), the author is sent the proof to check, along with any queries from the copyeditor. Some journals use professional proofreaders to check the proofs after typesetting and after the author has sent their corrections, but nowadays this step is skipped by many journals. But someone still needs to incorporate the author’s corrections into the article and do final checks before publication.
In my experience copyediting, typesetting and proof checking a typical research paper usually takes a few weeks. So, if the process starts immediately after acceptance and isn’t delayed, and if there is no delay from a paper gaining its final form and being published, a corrected paper can be published online a few weeks after acceptance. However, delays can occur at any stage.
Some journals display a typical or promised time from acceptance to publication on their websites. I have trawled through lots, and below is a selection. If you find more, please do add them in a comment. Note that these times are neither maximum nor minimum times – they are probably what the editors feel is a typical time, allowing for some papers to be published more quickly and some more slowly.
Times as of 2012
- Average of 10 days: Stem Cells (Wiley)
- About 3 weeks: BMJ Group journals such as Journal of Medical Genetics
- Within 4 weeks: Biology Open (Company of Biologists)
- Within 6 weeks: PLoS Biology (Public Library of Science), Journal of Cell Biology (Rockefeller University Press)
- Within 6-8 weeks: PLoS Medicine (Public Library of Science)
- Around 8 weeks: FASEB Journal, Systematic Biology (Oxford University Press), American Journal of Human Genetics (Cell Press)
- Within 2 months: Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences (Springer)
- 77 days: Circulation (American Heart Association)
- Up to 12 weeks: Cell (Cell Press)
You can see from this list that journals from the same publisher vary in their promised times and even in whether they promise a time or not.
Factors that affect publication speed
There are many things that can affect how quickly papers are published once they are accepted.
Publication in issues
Scheduling of issues is one of the commonest reasons for delays. Although most journals now publish articles online before print, there are still some that hold accepted papers in a queue until there is space for them in an issue. Elsevier changed to article-based publication in 2010, and their press release at the time claimed that this could shorten acceptance to publication time by up to seven weeks, to only a few weeks.
Some journals have backlogs of accepted papers that lead to delays in publication of months or even years. Others have got rid of these backlogs by changing to publishing online as soon as possible after acceptance and only later assembling papers into issues (I have been involved in helping one publisher with this transition).
Journals that publish only in issues can also delay particular papers for other reasons than space: if they aim for a balance of article types in each issue they may hold a paper over if there are too many of that type in the current issue; or if they want to publicise several papers on the same topic together, they may hold some of them until all are ready.
It is difficult to work out from journal websites whether they publish in issues or not. The best way to check for any particular journal is probably to look at the acceptance dates for articles in a particular issue and see whether they are spread out (in which case publication probably happens by article) or whether they are all a similar time before the issue date (in which case publication is probably by issue).
Copyediting first or later
The most common system is to copyedit, typeset, send proofs to the authors and perhaps proofread before online publication. Some journals, however, now publish the accepted version almost immediately after acceptance, and do any copyediting and typesetting later, replacing the accepted version when the edited and typeset version is ready. The latter journals can therefore boast acceptance to publication times of a few days or even hours rather than weeks.
I have been able to establish that the following publishers post accepted articles online before editing or typesetting for some or all journals:
- Wiley (‘OnlineAccepted’ option offered by some journals)
- Elsevier (Gastroenterology, publication within 5-7 business days)
- American Chemical Society (all journals, ‘usually within 30 minutes to 24 hours of acceptance’)
- Genetics Society of America (Genetics)
- BioMed Central (all journals, ‘publication occurs at the moment of acceptance’)
Fast track articles
Some journals have a fast track that offers faster publication for selected articles. This can speed up publication of these articles, but it can result in slower publication for all the non-fast-track articles if staff time is taken up with the fast-track ones. The editors make the decision on which papers are fast-tracked, but authors can usually request it and their request may be honoured if their reasons are judged to be good enough.
The following publishers offer fast-track publication for some or all journals (data as of 2012):
- Oxford University Press (eg European Heart Journal; publication within 10 days)
- Elsevier (eg Journal of the American College of Cardiology, publication of ‘Expedited Publications’ within 10 days)
- Annals of Internal Medicine (publication within 3 weeks)
Acceptance date issues
When looking at journal acceptance to publication times, it is worth bearing in mind that the acceptance date is the date when the final formal letter of acceptance is sent to the author. In reality, the decision to publish in principle is often made earlier, and the authors receive an email saying that the paper will be accepted as long as they make some final minor changes. Authors often feel at this point that the paper has been accepted, and it is usually safe to celebrate at this point. But it is not a final acceptance, and acceptance to publication times are measured only from the formal acceptance date.
How to estimate how fast a journal will publish after acceptance
I suggest following these steps to work out how fast your target journal is likely to publish your accepted paper.
- Check if it publishes accepted versions before any editing or typesetting. If so, publication time is likely to be 0–3 days.
- Check if it publishes papers online as soon as possible after acceptance, rather than waiting for an issue (print or online). Check whether this happens to all papers or just when the author requests, and request it if needed. If your paper is in this system, publication time is likely to be about 3–8 weeks.
- Check what the journal’s website says about the acceptance to publication times they aim for, and multiply by about 1.5 to get a maximum probable time. If this time has elapsed after acceptance, you can justifiably email the editors requesting an update.
- Look at some recent papers: most journals give the dates of acceptance and online publication on the paper, and often on the page containing the online abstract, so you can get a feel for how much time elapses between these events.
- If it publishes only in print, be prepared for a long wait!