Peer Review: Turnaround Times and Smiling Authors
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘I’m a slow walker, but I never look back’. The system of peer review in academic journals –which scholars have relied on for over 350 years to maintain the highest research standards – functions much the same way. It is slow, sometimes grindingly slow, but it works and is always moving us forward.
Yet peer review is an inherited system, one that, although never looking back, doesn’t flow seamlessly with the ever-developing demands of our profession and the sharing of research. We need an alternative and together must work to improve the system in which we are often submerged.
The missing piece
The problem is easy to formulate. Peer review is slow. The missing piece is speed.
In economics and business, the average turnaround time is 25 weeks, but even in medicine and public health, it’s 14. [1, 2]. Yet, we know that new academic and scientific research findings need to be communicated quickly to realise the benefits as soon as possible. A breakthrough in neurology, for example, doesn’t help sufferers in the now when it takes a year or more for peer review to endorse its legitimacy.
The system of review works against its need for speed. This is essentially because it’s unpaid work, which will naturally and inevitably be a lower priority despite being of incredible value to its profession. We must also be mindful that reviewers retain anonymity to provide a safeguarding space for opinions and scientific input, but with this comes little accountability or risk of reputational damage.
The inevitable delays
The concept is simple. The author submits, the reviewer reviews and based on the review, editors decide whether the paper should be published.
However, delays can occur at any stage and for many reasons.
· The author may not have followed the preparation and submission guidelines correctly.
· The paper may sit unattended on an editor’s desk for weeks.
· Since the work is generally unpaid, there is unsurprisingly little incentive for reviewers to prioritise peer review over their own heavy academic workload.
The editor: editors are or should be in control of the process. Before an assignment is made, it would work if a pre-assessment mechanism was in place to filter out articles that don’t meet the merits for review. This could include considering whether the article complies with the journal’s ethical policies, uses reliable sources and research methods, includes the necessary disclosures and a thorough abstract, and employs the correct citation style. With this one step alone, we could remove the first logjam.
The author and the editor: authors also have a role to play in speeding up the process, but it’s the editor’s job to direct them. The author should look to the editor for unambiguous instructions about house style, citation methods, sources, technical accuracy, and any of the journal’s wider policies that apply.
For example, there may be specific practices to consider regarding terminology, perspective, or enculturation. The author needs to know these and trust that their editor will tell them. They will also benefit from being given clear parameters for the type of article a journal can accept, saving time later.
Since publishers set policies for consistency across their journals, this is where the best instructions originate, including an integrated system for submission to various journals within the group. At PA EDitorial, we have extensive experience using many software systems available to help streamline the process and make management far easier, such as ScholarOne and Editorial Manager.
But our job as editors is not to refer authors to lengthy manuals but instead to give them specific guidance for easy reference and application. Also, it is important to let authors read example articles that have undergone the peer-review process and been successfully published.
Briefing an author well is as important as preparing the reviewer. A very helpful resource is offered by organisations such as Cofactor (https://cofactorscience.com/), which takes a broad perspective on peer review and gives sound advice to all participants in the process.
When a review is delivered, it is important to remember respect and inclusion. Working together means expressing appreciation for all the work a reviewer has done, especially as it has been undertaken voluntarily. It’s good practice to engage and encourage them to give feedback on the experience.
The publisher: publishers can also help with the solution. Their role and position within the peer-review system are crucial, and they can speed up the process by setting clear editorial policies and procedures. These can be made visible in journals and websites, giving authors and reviewers guidance and certainty. In observing this guidance, we can ensure reviewers continue to receive assignments.
The reviewer: reviewers need to be freed from as many constraints as possible. We need a system in place that throws off the restraints that make the process grindingly slow. To do this, we could consider a different way of approaching reviewers, offering them the opportunity to recommend alternative reviewers, so they don’t feel undue pressure to accept. And when we suggest non-binding but persuasive deadlines, we could foster a sense of collaboration by asking for the reviewer’s own estimates of workable timescales.
Collaboration can continue beyond timescales, with authors assisting the reviewer – one academic to another – advising on the journal’s core values and criteria and letting them know that it’s okay to disregard irrelevant stylistic concerns.
These small changes to our approach can reduce, as far as possible, the pressure to carry out time-consuming and onerous technical checks that an editorial team like PA EDitorial can do at a later stage.
Peer review should never be rushed. It is too important to be dictated by unyielding or unnecessary deadlines. Equally, it must not be left to dictate its own pace.
How do we find the balance?
Academia moves fast and moves slow. It’s a living brain with thousands of cogs that don’t always move as fast as the profession needs or desires.
The science and knowledge within it need to be expedited, and the best way to do that is to maintain seamlessly steady editorial control. This gives all parties a clear understanding of what is expected of them and eliminates as many practical obstacles as possible in advance. In doing this, reviewers can focus on the core of their assignment and respond quickly while editors can monitor the process.
At PA EDitorial, we provide a complete peer-review management service, working with publishers and editors to introduce new workflows or perfect existing ones. Our expertise lies in the ability to remove the managerial pressures of peer review and leave professional editors, writers, and academics to concentrate on the core work of developing, writing, and assessing innovative new ideas to enrich the world’s store of scientific and academic knowledge.