Monday, September 17, 2012

Editor Notes

The Review Process---Some Data

“My brother is really, really slow.” – Usain Bolt

We all want our manuscripts back quickly - “The review process is too slow!  I want my manuscript done ASAP!” 

Given this fair concern regarding time, we went back into the JSR archives and did some digging.  We asked the question – “What is the slowest part of the review process?”  The answer was interesting.

We considered the time from when a manuscript is submitted until a decision is reached, and all of the benchmarks along the way – assignment to editor, assignment to Associate Editor (AE), acceptance of first reviewer to review the manuscript, acceptance of second reviewer to handle the manuscript, receipt of all reviews, AE recommendation, and editor decision. 
Of all of these factors, the slowest aspect – the weak link in the chain – turns out to be the time in peer review by the external reviewers.  Over the past 6 years, manuscripts submitted to JSR averaged nearly SEVENTY PERCENT of their time in this stage of review - sitting, waiting either for someone to accept the responsibility to review them, and actually returning their reviews to the AE. 

On average, 44% of potential reviewers either decline to review manuscripts or simply do not respond.  Hence - it takes time to find willing and able and qualified reviewers.  Then, it takes time to properly review a manuscript, and we all have “real jobs” that require our time and efforts. 

Thus, it turned back around on the community.  Although we all desire more rapid reviews, we all bear responsibility for ensuring that this happens.  Playing silly games like the one author who threatened to “filibuster” a review he was doing until he got his reviews back clearly do not help the process move any faster. 

[SIDEBAR: The reviewer who threatened to hold a manuscript “hostage” (see previous post) – who demanded prompt reviews – had been asked five times to review manuscripts in the past few years.  Only once did he accept (e.g., he declined the 80% of the time!).  So he actually bears a disproportionately large share of blame for “slowness!”] 

We believe in the peer-review process. Of course it is not perfect.  Of course, it could be done more rapidly.  But, a more rapid review process would also require reviewers (you!) to return reviews faster.  Are you willing to do this?

Some folks are.  Since 2005, there have been 23 reviewers who have handled an average of one manuscript per year (thank you!).  Interestingly, these reviewers who handle at least one manuscript per year are on average 18% faster than the remainder who carry less of the load individually.  Of these, three have done so averaging less than 10 days per review - Andrew Miall, Brian Jones, and Thomas Algeo.  A double thank you to these “superstars” who also commonly provide careful reviews; like Usain Bolt, they can say that they are faster than others!

“Wisely, and slow.  They stumble, that run fast.” – William Shakespeare
“The slower you go, the more you see” – Ted the Turtle

Having said all of this regarding a desire for more rapid reviews, as one AE wisely stated, “At the end of the day, flux in equals flux out.”  A year from now, it will not matter if your manuscript spent an extra week in review.  And, we also caution any urge to make speed of a review the primary measure of success or quality.

After all, many careful and productive reviewers take their time.  They read a manuscript, sit and reflect on the data, arguments, logic, and structure.  Then, they proceed to plow through the details, followed by another period of reflection.  These reflections are summarized in a well-written, organized, and constructive cover letter that addresses suggestions for improving the science and the presentation.  This process is not rapid.  Yet, it is essential, and it is valuable.

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