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It took 5-6 months to hear from the referee in both of my accepted papers. In my one rejection it was only a couple of weeks.

I do not think it could possibly take 5-6 months to read and understand my papers.

Should I conclude that my referee's wait a few months to even begin reading my papers? Are they trying to answer questions I posed, to piggy-back before others see the publication? I just am having a hard time understanding the delay.

  • 5-6 is slightly long. Have a look at the journal's guidelines for reviewers. Often they expect the reviewers to finish their work within 3 months. If so, you can inquire with editor, although don't expect too much. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jun 16 '18 at 10:27
  • @henning I will look for that. I just hate to "push" the editor because I'm not a very established researcher and they might tell me to "get lost". – Forever Mozart Jun 16 '18 at 10:34
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    It depends on the field and, within the field, on the journal. For many reasonably decent journals in mathematics, 5-6 months would be very fast for a referee report. – Andrés E. Caicedo Jun 16 '18 at 11:43
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    It very probably is 2-3 months before the referee has time to look at your paper, since that is about the length of a teaching block. – Jessica B Jun 16 '18 at 15:56
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    How do you know it's the referees who are sitting on the paper for 5-6 months? Some of that time could be the editor sitting on the paper - the time taken for referees to respond is usually confidential information available only to the journal's staff. – Allure Jun 16 '18 at 20:38
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Reading your paper is not the only obligation your referee has. They are active researchers who, besides their own research, have teaching, administration, thesis defenses, other papers to review etc. They are also normal people, who have to make their personal life function.

5-6 months is a long time, but depending on the field and the length of your paper, it is not unusual.

Don't be so worried about other people stealing your ideas. Most likely the referees has more ideas of their own than they have available time.

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    Oh, I'm not worried about them stealing anything. I just wonder if they're (leisurely) trying to answer questions I often pose at the end. Your last comment is probably true. Whenever I go to conferences I'm thinking to myself "There's so much to do in my own narrow field that I'll probably never seriously think about presenter X's work". – Forever Mozart Jun 16 '18 at 10:32
  • I’d add to that, were your accepted (quickly reviewed) submissions "off season" in your field? That is, would the timing of them correspond with term time or holiday (summer) time or conference season? The length of the review time might be more to do with that than accept/reject decision (although I’m told that some reviewers aim to reject as quickly as possible to save time re-reading but I’m sure the comments will tell you if that’s the case). – Pam Jun 16 '18 at 15:10
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It’s unlikely they’re all sitting on the paper, although as has been mentioned it’s very field-dependent. A six-month delay in my field without any feedback would be approaching a four- to five-sigma event, but in math or some humanities fields, for instance, it might be more common.

What is possible is that the editor has some reviews in hand, but not enough to render her decision. If somebody is straggling, then a new review has to be solicited, leading to more delays.

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    Actually it is fairly common to just have a single reviewer in math. – Tobias Kildetoft Jun 16 '18 at 12:16
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Reviewing a paper takes me 4 hours upto 2 days. I only accept review invitations when I have time to read those papers. I have not yet declined any serious invitation. I try to submit my (naturally constructive) review within two weeks after being invited by an editor, no matter the time being given.

In contrast, I had to wait seven months once to receive a rejection. Other peer-reviewed journals accepted within two - three months, including revision. Therefore, I have the same question as you have. I think it strongly depends on the journal and the reviewers it relies on.

I have a theory but it is just a theory. Some journals have procedures about how often a reviewer can be approached. What if you just have to wait until a reviewer in your field becomes available?

Further I notice that reviewers easily exploit the maximum time given by an editor. An editor probably waits for all reviews to return. Then there are reviewers that need reminders or just never respond after having accepted an invitation, forcing an editor to start all over again. I even consider the possibility that a small number of reviewers intentionally slows down the process for competitive reasons.

I feel the whole review and decision process would benefit from more transparency and behavioral professionalism. Being busy is no excuse. Nobody is enforced to accept an invitation. We all, without exception, have 24 hours in a day.

You could consider sharing your review experience at SciRev.org

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    If everyone only accepted referee requests they had time to respond to within the next two weeks, most papers would never find a referee at all. – Jessica B Jun 16 '18 at 15:55
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A personal experience as editor (which might help understand why this happens):

An interesting paper finds its way to me via the editorial office. I usually try to use one of the suggested reviewers and another one - so those are invited and have about 3 weeks to reply. Both reviewers fail to reply within 21 days and the next on the list are invited ... After about 12 weeks, I have two reviews: "Reject" and "Minor Revision". In that case, I prefer to get a third opinion (which is also policy) - so add another 6 to 8 weeks. In total it took 24 weeks from submission to a 'Major revision' decision - and resulted in a very unhappy author.

Unfortunately there is no easy solution: it is difficult to find (good) reviewers, and they tend to be inundated with review requests as they are known to be reliable.

Complain to the editor-in-chief (or publisher) - in a friendly way of course - perhaps they can reduce the time given to reviewers or find other ways.

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    Thank you! Publishing papers is a close cooperation between (voluntary) reviewers and editors. I really believe editors have a tough job here and do what they can do to get work published. I wish more reviewers would equally walk that extra mile because we all need this system and benefit from it. Thank you for your efforts and insights. – user93911 Jun 17 '18 at 7:57

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