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Handling Peer Review

Understanding the Factors that Influence the Speed of Peer Review

 

Andrés Pagán, Associate Editor

May 2022


Peer review is an integral component of scholarly publishing. Peer review is essential in establishing and maintaining the credibility of scientific journals; however, one of the most common questions posed by authors is “Why are peer review periods so long?” Indeed, a recent study analyzing more than 3500 review experiences found that more than 80% of cases took longer than 1 month to receive a first response and that, on average, the entire peer review process took 17 weeks to complete. To better understand why peer review takes so long, we highlight below the different stages of peer review and discuss factors that influence their duration. We also provide several suggestions that authors can employ that may accelerate the peer review process of future manuscripts.

Stages of the peer review process

We note the main stages of the peer-review process vary per journal; however, most journals include the following:

Author submission:

Most journals process submissions through online platforms; however, navigating online submission platforms is not always intuitive as an author. Additionally, journals often require documents to meet specific formatting and uploading requirements. For example, one journal may allow an article to be submitted as a single upload, whereas another may specify that documents (e.g., Cover Letter, Main Text, Figures / Tables, Supplementary Materials) be uploaded separately. Depending on an author’s familiarity with a given platform, simply submitting an article can take a few hours or more than a day. We recommend thoroughly reading the journal’s Author Guidelines and preparing for submitting as you are drafting your article.

Initial evaluation:

Once a manuscript is successfully submitted to a journal for review, it will be screened to determine if the paper is composed and structured in accordance with the journal guidelines, and to verify that the required sections and formatting have been applied correctly. While some journals have editorial assistants that assist with this stage, others do not, and thus the initial evaluation may take several days to more than a week.

Editorial evaluation:

The decision as to whether a paper will be considered for peer review is usually made by an Academic Editor, Managing Editor, Handling Editor or Editor-in-Chief. At this stage, the Editor will evaluate whether the study is of sufficient novelty and quality and whether it fits within the scope and aims of the journal. Some journals are broad in scope and attract many submissions; others specialize in niche fields and receive fewer submissions. Higher impact journals with broad audiences often receive a larger volume of submissions compared to smaller, more specialized journals. While variable, the editorial evaluation stage of the peer review process usually lasts a week or longer.

Invitation to reviewers:

If the Editor approves a manuscript for peer review, invitations will be sent to reviewers. It is common for journals to invite several (3 or more) peer reviewers. Importantly, it is often very difficult to secure commitments from reviewers due to their demanding and busy schedules, causing the Editor to invite alternative reviewers or try to accommodate schedules by providing extensions to the reviewers. These types of conflicts commonly delay the peer review process and lead to some of the longest delays within peer review. Once peer reviewers agree to a review, they may be allotted up to one month to complete their review; however, many reviewers request extensions beyond this period, leading to additional delays. As a result, the process of finding qualified and available reviewers, and the time it takes for them to review a manuscript, can lead to the peer review process lasting between 3 and 6 months.

Final evaluation and decision by the Editor:

Once reviewers complete their evaluations, they submit them to the Managing or Handling Editor who determines whether to accept the manuscript (with minor or major revisions), allow the authors to revise and resubmit, or reject the paper outright. In some cases, reviewer evaluations will differ considerably, and the Managing Editor will invite additional reviewers. If the manuscript is conditionally accepted, the process may be extended for several more weeks while authors revise their manuscript, submit their revised manuscript, and have the updated manuscript evaluated by reviewers. Thus, even after the initial decision is made, the process may continue for several more weeks or months.

Factors that influence the duration of peer review In addition to the above factors, other issues that can influence a peer review period are as follows:

Manuscript length: Longer manuscripts may take more time to review than shorter manuscripts; however, this is field dependent.

Technical vs. generic focus: Highly technical studies may have longer peer review periods than less technical studies, since finding qualified reviewers may be more difficult and therefore take longer from the Editorial side.

Journal publishing frequency: Journals that publish more frequently (monthly, bi-monthly) typically have shorter review periods than journals that publish quarterly or yearly issues. You can find this information on the journal website or in their Guidelines.

How to minimize peer review delays

While there are many factors that can influence the peer review process as detailed above, there are several steps authors can take to help facilitate, and hopefully shorten, peer review periods for their own manuscripts. These include:

Selecting a target journal strategically: Submitting to a journal with stated objectives that closely align with the focus of a study can save time by increasing the chances of having the paper enthusiastically received by the Editor and evaluated by reviewers. Several publishers have online tools that help authors find suitable journals, and LetPub provides a free Journal Selector as well as a Journal Recommendation Service, where qualified experts evaluate the manuscript and create a customized report with 3 to 5 journal recommendations.

Format the manuscript prior to submission: Although not always required at the submission stage, composing the manuscript, and applying the formatting in accordance with journal guidelines, can help save time by making the evaluation of the manuscript simpler and quicker. Authors should always review their target journal’s guidelines to make sure their paper includes all the necessary sections and is structured appropriately. Several publishers even provide templates to facilitate this process. Alternatively, authors can seek a Manuscript Formatting Service, to help correctly format a manuscript in accordance with the target journal’s published guidelines.

Recommend potential reviewers: Finding qualified reviewers can be one of the most time-consuming stages of the peer review process. Providing 3 to 5 reviewer recommendations may help reduce the Editor’s time spent on finding qualified researchers to evaluate your manuscript. However, authors should carefully consider their selections to avoid any potential conflicts of interest when recommending potential reviewers.

Send follow up emails: Many journals provide an estimated timeline of the peer review process. Many also have real time status updates through the submission platform. However, if a paper gets stuck at any given stage for more than a few weeks, it may be appropriate for the corresponding author to send an email to the Editor asking for a status update.

Considering all the people involved and the stages required to provide effective peer review, it is not surprising that it often takes several months to complete. However, with a little foresight and preparation, authors can help the process proceed more easily and quickly.

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