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? 🙂
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.
Some may very well be, but in my experience, and I have been an Editor for more than thirty years, most authors are very reasonable people.