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When I recently inquired about the status of my paper which is currently in the "under review" status, the editorial assistant informed me that they are still awaiting referee reports, and the Editor is expecting that the review process will be completed at the end of the January. Its been a year I have submitted, and I am a bit startled that the editor has given a specific time of completion, rather than just say that it's still pending. Could there be any specific reason? Do reviews happen more in the holiday season generally? Assuming the reviewers have ample leisure time to study the paper? Does this indicate anything about the incoming decision?

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    note that "holiday season" is not a thing for a good portion of the world. Some countries have no or 1 day break at 1st of Jan. and that is it. – Boaty Mcboatface Dec 22 '19 at 16:17
  • Having declined every referee request received during my Fall quarter, and being now back to refereeing, I can anecdotally confirm your guess. Yes, teaching and refereeing mix badly. – darij grinberg Dec 22 '19 at 23:06
  • Beside the comment of Boaty Mcboatface applies, I would say that holidays tend to slow down thing, including referee activity. – Alchimista Dec 23 '19 at 8:57
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Reviewers set their own schedule subject, more or less, to deadlines set by the editor. Some might use holidays to work on reviews. Others might rather avoid anything that looks like work. The "end of January" may be a guess or may be more firm, depending on the deadline request sent to reviewers. Perhaps a reviewer has made a "promise" to be done by then.

And what is "expected" may not come to pass since reviewers aren't employees, but volunteers.

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  • The more particular reason why I am asking is, the paper has been in "reviewer invited" state for a long time (almost 6-7 months) before reaching the "under review". This means that the reviewers took a long time before accepting to review. Possibly it was a bit far from their routine expertise, or they possibly thought it would need very close examination, needing to dig a bit deep into fundamentals. – user102868 Dec 22 '19 at 14:53
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    It is also possible that finding the appropriate reviewer was harder than normal. An especially esoteric subfield of math would lead to that in some cases. – Buffy Dec 22 '19 at 15:01
  • Yes. Precisely. even if they were just once upon a time appropriate but not now, upon persistence from the editor, they would have agreed but would have asked time to get back to the appropriate subject and review. – user102868 Dec 22 '19 at 15:07
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There're several questions in the OP:

I am a bit startled that the editor has given a specific time of completion, rather than just say that it's still pending. Could there be any specific reason?

The most likely reason is because they invited a reviewer requesting a review by [deadline], and the reviewer agreed to review. This isn't a guarantee that the review will actually be submitted by that deadline, of course, but it is good enough to say that they are expecting to complete review by then.

Do reviews happen more in the holiday season generally? Assuming the reviewers have ample leisure time to study the paper?

In some cultures, everyone goes on holiday en masse during the Christmas season. It depends on your reviewer of course, but if they're on holiday, they presumably don't do peer review (which is more like work than holiday).

If your reviewer(s) are not from these cultures, then it's quite possible they continue to work as normal.

Does this indicate anything about the incoming decision?

No, aside from the fact that your manuscript is good/relevant enough that it isn't being desk rejected.

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