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I have accepted a journal paper for a peer review for the first time. However, given a very limited time to review it, I’m no longer confident about whether to continue or come back from it.

The subject of the paper is my field of research for years. Also, I have many publications in the same area (optimization in wireless sensor networks). That is why I was excited about the experience and decide to accept reviewing the paper. Especially since I was waiting for the opportunity to take a first paper to review.

The problem is that I didn’t give much importance to the due date which is of 20 days. I thought they were enough time to review something you already know. And I didn’t know that practically, a review takes at least one month to three months, till now.

I am in the middle of the required period and I start doubting my decision on accepting to review. I want to ask what should I do.

Should I send an email to the editor explaining my position and declining the review? In that case, wouldn’t that affect my credibility and image in the community?

Or should I continue with the review and do as much as I can with the remaining time? In that case, I could perform a not very high-quality review (for the reason of the very short given time). Wouldn’t that affect again, my image and give a false idea about my capabilities? Another important point is that I could “harm” the paper author and not be “too fair” with the decision on his paper.

So, to resume my question, I have only 10 days or less left to review a journal paper for the first time, and don’t know if it is enough time even for a paper in the heart of my research area.

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    "a review takes at least one month to three months" - what do you mean by this?! Working on it full-time or 10 minutes every now and then? In my field, most people that I know spend approx. 2-8 hours for a review, depending on its complexity. Whether 20 days are sufficient totally depends on ones personal schedule.
    – LuckyPal
    Dec 11, 2022 at 19:52
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    @LuckyPal Same-ish, but this is highly field-dependent. Complex theoretical papers can take a few months while in my field someone would normally spend a few hours on a preliminary review, take a day or two to mull over it for a bit, and the rest is down to scheduling.
    – Lodinn
    Dec 11, 2022 at 19:56
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    I wouldn't worry about the deadline. For example, IEEE IoTJ specifies two weeks. I rarely adhere to that unless I have time. Finding reviewers is hard and they are volunteers. You don't need to email the editor. He/she understands. As for reputation, a journal's submission system may track how many papers you've accepted, rejected, decline to review, and time taken. How these stats are used is entirely up to an editor. Dec 12, 2022 at 1:47
  • @LuckyPal It is not a (5-6) page conference paper. It is rather a (15-16) pages journal paper with a well-known publisher. It includes complex mathematical demonstrations all over the paper that should be verified. I may agree that 3 months is a lot of time but 2-8 hours is also a very short amount of time. You may be talking about professors that have reviewed tens of papers. I clearly mentioned it is my first time. I'll add that I'm not a professor but a long-term researcher. Since my last paper was published more than a year ago, I may need time to examine what the community is up to.
    – Hana
    Dec 12, 2022 at 10:33
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    @Hana I am also talking about regular papers, published in the higest impact journal. I am aware that theoretical mathematics is much more difficult to review than more applied research, and reviewing for the first time naturally takes more time. Still, the effort you suggest seems far off the scale to me. And if the editor sets a deadline after 20 days, they seem to also think that you should not spend more than a few days of working time.
    – LuckyPal
    Dec 12, 2022 at 10:47

3 Answers 3

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Yes, contact the editor with your concerns. I'll guess that the "deadline" may be more flexible than you think unless it is for a special issue. That seems unlikely and a failure on the editor's part not to provide more time initially.

If you can, give an estimate of how much time you'd need and mention the possibility you might need to withdraw.

The editor has a lot of experience with such things. It isn't an unusual case.

The "appropriate" length of review depends on many things, especially the complexity of the paper. But editors realize that their reviewers are also busy.

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  • Thank you very much for your answer. It is very helpful. For the editor's email address, I only have the email they mentionned at first which is an administrative one (it does not contain the editor name). Is it for sure that my email will reach the person in charge when sending to that one ?
    – Hana
    Dec 11, 2022 at 19:27
  • Some journals/publishers try to have a sped up review process, especially many MDPI journals. 20 days review time is not out of the norm for them. If you tell them that you need more time, they might look for another reviewer altogether as they want to maintain their swift review process.
    – Sursula
    Dec 12, 2022 at 7:46
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Reviewing a paper for the first time, even if there are lots of technical details to check, I would expect to take between two days and one week. The reason that a typical deadline is three months is that it may take a long time before you have those few days available for reviewing (especially if you have other papers waiting for review). So I would interpret a deadline of 20 days as basically saying "if you have time available now or in the near future to set aside for this review, please accept, but if not we would rather ask someone else to get a quick turn around".

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I would recommend you connect with experienced people in your field to check how they conduct peer review. If everyone in your field would take 1-3 months full-time for a review, I suspect there would be very little actual research being done because everyone would be busy with conducting peer reviews only. If the editor sets the deadline to 20 days, then they also seem to expect you to work not more than a few days on it.

I am aware that theoretical math is much more difficult to review than more applied research, but the effort that you describe seems far off the scale. In my field, most people that I know spend approx. 2-8 hours for a review, depending on its complexity. Whether 20 days are sufficient totally depends on ones personal schedule. Of course, it is an absolutely legitimate request to extend the deadline if it seems not possible to finish the review within the suggested time. And it is always better to communicate time problems directly that to wait until the deadline extends.

If it is your first peer review, you should definitely seek for guidance in order to do it well, e.g. from your supervisor. At my university, there is even a semester-long peer review course, where people are taught to perform good peer reviews and conduct several real peer reviews for highly reputable journals throughout the course. I think it is a big mistake of the research community to simply assume that everyone knows how to perform a good peer review just because they have published research themselves.

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