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Another problem I personally struggle with in peer-review publication process is the situation when review takes really, really, really long. The precise definition of "long" is probably very area-specific: for example a paper in Maths will probably took longer to review than one in Physics. Many well-established journals and major publishers, sadly, prefer not to specify the "rules of the game" precisely, particularly how long the review process should normally take. Fortunately, I quite often serve as a referee with the very same journals and know the amount of time I am given to write a review. Unfortunately, when I am an author, I do not observe these deadlines to be always met. For example, a notable U.S. publisher would ask a reviewer to send a review in 2 months; but in practice a first review of my paper once took as long as 8 months.

As a rule of thumb, I usually start writing to editors with questions about "the status of my paper" in X+1 months time, when X is a deadline time for a reviewer to submit a review. This strategy is not particularly successful — what I usually get is a recommendation to be more patient. Since there is no "official" deadline time announced, there is no formal ground for complaints here.

Of course, such delays lead to a whole bunch of funny situations, particularly if a preprint is put online (e.g., on arXiv) and the results are presented in some conferences. Follow-ups with no official paper to cite, grant applications in which you can not justify by a solid publication, good research but bad bibliometrics or CV, to name just a few.

Could you recommend an efficient way to deal with this problem?

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Until you have been flooded with reviewing or editing duties, you can not understand why reviews take long :-) I found, however, that lucidly written papers have a faster turnaround time, for obvious reasons - easy read, easy review. – Captain Emacs Jun 26 at 23:54
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Ooops. This question just reminded me I'm very late in reviewing some paper I promised to the editor long time ago! Thanks! – Dilworth Jun 27 at 0:39
up vote 7 down vote accepted

I have found that a polite, terse e-mail to the associate editor with a clear history line often works in getting some response. Occasionally, I have written the editor-in-chief if an associate editor is ignoring me. As Peter points out, there may be legitimate reasons for a delay, including:

  • The editor is having a hard time finding a competent reviewer (maybe the area is too narrow).
  • Your paper is very hard to understand (sometimes, if it's badly written but seems to have some elements of novelty, a reviewer will try to plow through to understand what is going one).
  • The editor needs an additional reviewer in order to break a strong difference of opinion between the original reviewers.

When even the editor-in-chief does not answer in a timely manner (and I have had this only once in my career), your best recourse is to never submit future articles to that journal. You will be doing your community (and the next submitter) a service.

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There are plenty of reasons why reviews take a long time. First you seem to forget that the time from you submitting your paper until receiving the reviews is not only taken up by the reviewers. The manuscript is probably first scrutinized by a chief editor to see if it is on topic. depending on the journal structure the manuscript might be assigned to another editor who will handle the review process. The handling editor will start to look for reviewers and it is not unheard of that one must ask quite a few in order to get two that accept. Then reviewers have their stipulated time. Once reviews are back the editor needs to look through the comments and make decision on what should happen (reject/some form of revisions/accept) and then provide the author with these comments. So if all this works smoothly it will take a bit of time. Often it is hard to find reviewers and some reviewers may take more time than they should and so the process is extended. Add to that that the editors usually have more than one paper to deal with.

So what can be done? Well not much except try to be quick yourself and set an example. Of course if the time really drags on and there is no response, a well formulated request for status from the editor is in place but when that should be considered is a judgement call depending on the typical time for reviews to be completed in the journal. fortunately many electronic submission systems signal where the paper is in the process which can help judging the timing better.

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Sometimes a long wait is the result of conflicting reviews, because the editor has to restart the clock for a new reviewer who has been invited to break a tie. Other times, a particular reviewer is slow, but the editor prefers a slow review that is of high quality to a quick one that cannot be trusted.

The deadlines given to reviewers don't mean very much. Remember that there's no credit for reviewing, so reviewers may be inclined to put a review aside when they need to concentrate on writing a paper or proposal, teaching a class, handling personal matters, etc.

Of course, none of this addresses your question. The answer is that there is nothing you can do beyond what you have said you're doing. This is just a part of the academic life. It's frustrating, but not as frustrating as the silly deadlines given to authors at the galley stage (often 24 hours, in my field).

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One thing you can do is target journals that have efficient review processes. SciRev (https://scirev.sc/) is one website that collates "reviews of the review process", or you could ask colleagues about their experiences.

Other than that, I don't think there is anything you can do other than what you have been doing. As an author it is frustrating, and I can tell you that it's frustrating as an editor, too. When I receive queries of the sort you have described from authors, it does prompt me to check on the paper and either nag the tardy reviewers or invite new reviewers if I think the reviewers who originally agreed have become responsive (though rest assured that I do check on them regularly anyway). My journal asks for reviews to be returned within three weeks, but the average actual turn around is about 2 months. When I receive author queries less than 3 months after submission, I feel it is impatient on the part of the author and am slightly annoyed -- but I still check up on it. If a query comes after 4 months or more, I will chase it up more seriously and feel guilty.

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