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Submission to first decision time

Journals, Peer review

In 2013 I wrote a blog post about the time it takes journals to make a decision on papers after peer review. Nine years later it is still one of my most popular posts, but it is now rather out of date. The following is an updated version.

In the original post I analysed the speeds of various journals. I then set up the Cofactor Journal Selector Tool to help researchers find this information. However, I have now decided to archive the tool as it required too many resources to keep it updated.

Elsevier journals all have ‘Journal Insights’ on their home pages, where you can get data on how quickly they have reviewed and published papers in recent years. I wish all publishers provided this information!

What affects review speed?

One conclusion from my 2012 analysis was that newer journals tend to be  faster. If they are, why might that be? One possible reason is that as the number of submitted papers goes up, the number of editors doesn’t always go up quickly enough, so the editors get overworked – whereas when a journal is new, the number of papers to handle per editor may be lower.

It is important to remember that the speed of review is mainly down to the reviewers. Editors can affect this by setting deadlines and chasing late reviewers, but they only have a limited amount of control over when reviewers send their reports.

Another factor is how long it takes to find reviewers. It is rare that all the reviewers who are first asked say yes, so editors have to go down their list and ask their second, third, fourth or even lower choices. There is evidence that it is becoming more difficult to find reviewers in recent years, for instance in this 2017 study.

There could be various reasons for variations in the average speed of review between journals. Reviewers might be excited by the prospect of reviewing for newer journals, so they are more likely to be fast. This could equally be true for the highest impact journals, of course, and also for open access journals if the reviewer is a fan of open access. Enthusiastic reviewers not only mean that the reviewers who have agreed send their reports in more quickly, but also that it will be easier to get someone to agree to review in the first place.

A logical conclusion from this might be that the best way in which a journal could speed up its time to first decision would be to cultivate enthusiasm for their journal among the pool of potential reviewers. Building a community around the journal, using social media, conferences,  mascots or even free gifts might help.

Another less positive possible reason for shorter review times could be that reviewers are not being careful enough. This hypothesis was tested and refuted by the editors of Acta Neuropathologica in a 2008 editorial. (Incidentally, this journal had an average time from submission to first decision of around 17 days between 2005 and 2007, which is pretty fast.) The editorial says “Because in this journal all reviews are rated from 0 (worst) to 100 (best), we plotted speed versus quality. As reflected in Fig. 1, there is no indication that review time is related to the quality of a review.”

More recent developments

A 2015 post by biologist Stephen Heard suggested that 7 weeks is a reasonable minimum to expect peer review to take,  including time for associate editors and the editor-in-chief to process the reviews. So perhaps journals that take longer than this aren’t taking enough time over review?

A 2015 post by Terry McGlynn asks readers to fill in a survey of how many weeks after manuscript submission they think they deserve to receive reviews and a decision. The author says:

“When a review is taking a long time, I suggest there are three major possibilities:

The editor is having a really hard time finding people to review the paper.

A reviewer is being irresponsible.

Someone dropped the ball due to negligence or circumstances beyond their control.”

In 2020 peer review of papers related to Covid-19 was speeded up enormously, partly by a sense of urgency felt by everyone involved and partly because of a new initiative, the Covid-19 rapid review project.

Other ways to speed up peer review

Of course there are ways you can speed up peer review of your paper that aren’t simply choosing a fast journal. You can:

  • Choose a journal that publishes before peer review
  • Use journal-independent peer review so that your paper is only reviewed once but has a chance with several journals
  • Pick a journal that uses cascading peer review so that if it rejects your paper it can be published quickly by a sister journal
  • Ensure that your study has been done rigorous and is clearly reported, that you avoid overclaiming and include all possible controls, so that reviewers don’t have to ask for all this

And you can post a preprint of your paper before submitting it to a journal, so it is already available for others to read and build on while you wait for the peer review process.

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Cofactor’s founder, Anna Sharman, has been a biologist, journal editor and publishing consultant.

She saw that what publishers wanted was different from what researchers submitted, and wanted to help researchers navigate the publication process.

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