Should we boycott journals that use bullying tactics to speed up their review process? The Verdict

In which, Dear Reader, I reveal the results of my recent poll, discuss the dilemmas faced by journal Editors and call most earnestly upon the scientific community to help us in our endeavours.

Three weeks ago, incensed by a request (from a journal that shall remain nameless), to turn round a review within a week, I put fingers to keyboard and asked the world if we should boycott such journals.  I rarely run polls, but I did on this occasion; for two reasons, one I was genuinely interested in how others felt about this, and second, because as an Editor the topic regularly comes up when we meet with our publishers, who are always keen to reduce the time allowed to referees to return their reviews.

My first question was whether we should boycott those journals that ask referees to return their reviews within one week.  As you can see, the response was overwhelmingly in favour of such a boycott.

87% of respondents thought we should boycott journals that ask for a one-week turnaround

My other question was to do with what people felt was a reasonable time to complete a review. As you can see most respondents felt that at least

Respondent’s views on the reasonable time in which to complete a review

three weeks was a reasonable time in which to complete a review, with a hefty (note that, tempted as I was, I did not use the word significant) proportion suggesting a month as the ideal time span in which to complete their review.

I was reasonably happy with the results of the polls as the two journal that I edit both ask for a three-week turnaround, and we have so far, resisted pressure from the publishers to reduce this to two weeks.  As Editors, we rightly feel a responsibility to our authors to make a decision on their manuscript as quickly as possible, although as Steve Heard has pointed out, authors need to be realistic about how long they should expect to wait. Spoiler alert, it is a lot longer than a week.  We also have considerable pressure from our publishers to constantly “improve” our turnaround times as this is one of the metrics they push when ‘selling’ our journals.  They tell us, time after time, that as well as the dreaded Impact Factor, time to publication, which is a function of review turnaround time, is one of the metrics that influences author journal choices.

Journals need good submission rates to allow us, the Editors, to fill our page allocations with high quality manuscripts.  If paper submission rates fall we can panic and fill the pages with poorer quality papers, or stand firm, and either delay publishing an issue (not good from the point of view of the publishers and Web of Science), or produce a timely, but thin issue (not ideal for our subscribers). The pressure from the publishers, even if you are lucky enough to be editing a journal for a learned society, can, on occasion, be quite stressful. Given this, you may well wonder, why people choose to be Editors; this post from some time ago might help you understand our motives. 🙂

Good referees are like gold dust, and as most journals do not pay them, we very much rely on their good will. Now this is where we have a dilemma. Good referees are experts in their fields, which they have proven by having published in journals such as those I and others edit. As an Editor I know how difficult it is to get the minimum two referees needed to maintain, however imperfectly, the academic standards we all hold dear.  My record to date is thirteen refusals, for a paper that was perfectly fine, but for some reason, unclear to me, no one seemed to want to review. It is at times like those that I have some sympathy for the views of those who feel that we should do away with the current peer review system and let papers find their own level (Kovanis et al., 2017).  This is, of course untenable, as although specialists in the field would know to steer clear of the dross, there would be many, and not just the media, but those with either hidden agendas or lack of discernment, who, either knowingly or unwittingly, would report them as fact. In my opinion, which I think is an informed one, a robust and peer review system is still a necessity. Imperfect as the one we currently have, it is the best available.  We need to conserve what we have, whilst acknowledging that we can, and should improve upon it, not wreck it by imposing impossible demands on referees by assuming that authors are selfish self-seeking opportunists*.  So, authors step up to be referees, and journal editors, resist the demands of publishers to impose unrealistic turnaround times on your editorial teams and reviewers.  Editors and referees, are, in the main, also authors, so we should all be on the same page, or am I being incredibly naive? 🙂

 

References

 

Didham, R.K., Leather, S.R. & Basset, Y. (2017) Don’t be a zero-sum reviewer. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 10, 1-4.

Kovanis, M., Trinquart, L., Ravaud, P. & Pörcher, R. (2017) Evaluating alternative systems of peer review: a large-scale agent-based modelling approach to scientific publication. Scientometrics, 113, 651–671.

 

*

4 Comments

Filed under Bugbears, Science writing

4 responses to “Should we boycott journals that use bullying tactics to speed up their review process? The Verdict

  1. I’m not sure that boycott is the solution 🙂 But agree that 1 week is just ridiculous especially given current situation! I do wonder how many people, especially early career researchers, realise that you can accept & then request an extension – I don’t know any editor who would refuse a reasonable amount of extra time. I tend to think of the time limits as the journal’s ideal, but the world won’t end if you take a bit longer – just make sure you notify the journal. If you’re later than the due date, not only will the editor be stewing about making a decision, but the reviewer will keep getting annoying reminder emails until they submit!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Unfortunately MDPI journals (oops, I’ve named the publisher) don’t really let you do this – they have a little calendar thing that you can edit to say 10 days and even if you contact the Editorial Assistant that contacted you and say you will do it if they give you an extension – they say yes but still send you an overdue reminder after a week and on one occasion, email to tell you that they don’t need your review anymore before the week is up – hence my less than tolerant attitude to them 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • oh that makes sense, I once got a review request from that company for a 3 day turnaround! I immediately declined of course. I don’t review for any of their journals anymore for other reasons, their attitude to peer review & publishing is interesting…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Simon, great post. You’ve put your finger on the key: the same people who want lots of time to review MY paper expect me to review THEIR papers like lightning. Your data show that when we think as potential reviewers, we want 3+ weeks. But as you say, when we think as authors we choose journals partly on time-to-publication (and many, many of us have utterly unreasonable expectations for how quickly peer review can proceed: https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/how-long-should-peer-review-take/). So I suppose we shouldn’t entirely blame publishers for giving us what we want! At least, not *entirely*…

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.