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I am asking this question because I've always had the impression that manuscripts submitted to a journal in my field (theoretical linguistics) take an insanely long time to get published, and sometimes I get the impression that this is because, most of the time, nobody other than the author cares about getting things done within a reasonable amount of time. Some examples from personal experience follow.

  • For the last paper I submitted before getting my PhD, I had to wait nine months from the submission date to get reviews back from the referees.
  • Last week I got a review request from a journal I had never reviewed for previously. The review deadline is March 15 (almost four months).
  • In early October, I submitted a manuscript to a journal that I know asks reviewers to return reviews within 6 weeks. I checked the status of the manuscript online and it still says "with editor".
  • Earlier this year, I was about to start writing a review when my wife went into labor. By the time we came back from the hospital, I had forgotten about the review, so I missed the deadline. The editor didn't contact me to ask about the review until two months after the deadline.
  • Late in 2013, I was asked to write a survey chapter for a handbook. The expected publication date of the handbook is summer 2016.

All of this is not me being unlucky with editors and referees. In private conversations through the years, many colleagues have confirmed that it is virtually unheard of to get reviews back within 3 months of submission; 5 or 6 months seems to be a good average, but in some cases it can take longer (see my first point above). In general, everybody seems to have accepted that the submission-to-printed-journal process is going to take a bare minimum of one year, and that's assuming that the manuscript is accepted without revisions. If revisions are required, two years is not out of the question. Also, it's not like our papers are ridiculously long. I've reviewed about 100 papers so far, and the longest one was about 50 single-space pages; 30-35 single-spaced pages is closer to average.

I remember that, when I was a postdoc, my astrophysics housemate mentioned that in his field the entire submission-to-printed-journal process took only three or four months. I really can't see a good reason why theoretical linguistics shouldn't operate on similar timeframes, other than the fact that everybody seems to have grown used to things taking way longer than they really need to. What are the wait times in other fields? How do you manage to get things done quickly?

  • Being in the same field, I can confirm everything said in this post. What's strange is that linguistics journals typically have a quicker turnaround that books and proceedings. I submitted a paper for a proceedings volume in 2010. Even without peer reviews, it still hasn't appeared. – Sverre Dec 5 '14 at 17:56
  • This question is not only discipline-dependent but also journal-dependent. For example, in my field (metrology), review time can vary from one-two months to many months - almost one year, depending on the journal. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 5 '14 at 20:46
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    Great question. It always bothered me that the review process at (respectable) physics journals, takes 3-6 months, while in CS/EE you usually don't expect to see the first round of reviews before a year has passed. I'm also bothered what is the reason for such a discrepancy across (quite similar) scientific fields. – Ran G. Dec 6 '14 at 2:57
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    @RanG. I work in CS, and I was furious the one time the first review round of a journal took more than 6 months. So no, I certainly expect reviews in less than a year. – xLeitix Dec 6 '14 at 15:24
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    This seems like a poll question, which are generally frowned upon. As answers will not only be field, but often publisher/journal specific, I don't see how it is going to be valuable enough to make an exception. – StrongBad Dec 6 '14 at 15:51
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For mathematics, here's the latest survey done by American Mathematical Society:

http://www.ams.org/notices/201410/rnoti-p1268.pdf

You can find median times from submission/acceptance to acceptance/print/electronic print for various math journals as well as other statistics like the current estimate of waiting time for each journal. Not surprisingly, the median time from submission to acceptance in 2013 varies greatly; some take only a few months and others nearly a year and a half.

They do this survey every year. For instance, here's the one published 2 years ago:

http://www.ams.org/notices/201210/rtx121001473p.pdf

The worst offender that took the longest between submission and acceptance that year was Annals of Mathematics (which happens to be among the most prestigious math journals), and the median was 24 months.

I don't know if there is data for other fields. But American Physical Society occasionally makes statistics for their journals available, e.g., pages 14-17 of this PDF slides:

http://www.phys.nthu.edu.tw/~colloquium/2009F/T2.pdf

From my own experience as an author and reviewer as well as from what I hear, it appears that math journals typically take longer than physics journals. But probably things are drastically different across subfields even within one discipline (e.g., theoretical vs. experimental).

In any case, as the fact that they publish statistics indicates, both disciplines seem to take turnaround time very seriously. But for some reason, it appears that review tends to take more time if a journal publishes more mathematical papers. This seems to hold true for electrical engineering, too; the journal I have published in most frequently belongs to electrical engineering but is known for being heavily mathematical, and, lo and be hold, it's notorious for its slow, slow, slooow review...

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In biology, things are much faster (although it can vary for different journals). From my experience, reviewers usually get a deadline of 2-3 weeks to submit their review, although many reviewers fail to meet this deadline. So the typical time of getting back the first review is around 1-2 months, depending on the journal.

Since speed is often an important factor, some journals make a point of advertising their typical review/decision times. For example the journal Genome Research states their average turnaround time for review is 30 days. The journal eLife gives the following median times: 3 days for initial decision (editorial decision whether to send the paper to review), 29 days to post-review decision, 90 days submission to acceptance.

How this affects the quality of reviews, especially those of interdisciplinary work (e.g. combining math and biology), is a completely different matter...

However, one way to explain the difference in speed from a theoretical field like math, is since biology is an experiment-based discipline, the reviewers basically evaluate what the authors report about their experiment - they cannot, and are not expected to, reproduce these experiments on their own. Once the paper is published, other labs will eventually try to reproduce its results.

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As a linguist and former editor, I would say that your problems are on the outer edges of experience, which may have something to do with the journals you are submitting to, but not beyond belief. No names, but there are a couple of well-regarded theory journals that are known to have this problem. The main explanation is that reviewers take forever, and editors only have a limited power and willingness to nag: they are willing to wait another 4 months rather than drop the reviewer and get someone else. This problem is somewhat ameloriated by submission software which is now popular that automatically nags reviewers. The ultimate solution, I'm afraid, is that authors need to email the editor with a status query with a week after the supposed deadline (if the journal says when they expect to return a decision). A significant contributing problem, IMO, is that there is nearly no infrastructural support for the editor.

Handbooks and the like are another story. Expect a 4 year delay from invitation to appearance.

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Contrary to what RanG reports in a comment, I have the feeling that (applied) CS is comparatively fast in terms of turnaround times. Reviewers typically get ~ 1 month of time for review (+ a few weeks of slack, realistically), and most journals aim to come back to authors for revisions in a time frame of 4 to 6 months.

That being said, the time from initial submission to when a paper actually appears is usually still multiple years. A big contributor is that, at least in my community, there is a pattern that most (including very good!) submissions go through a lifecycle of Submission -> Major Revision -> [Major Revision] -> Minor Revision -> Accept -> Publication, with each step taking about half a year. That is, even very strong papers are often forced to "go through the motions" of some iterations of pseudo-revisions that don't really add anything substantial to the papers.

Of course, in CS, we primarily publish in conferences anyway, so most people don't really mind so much.

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    Theoretical CS, on the other hand, is closer to math in my experience. – Mangara Oct 8 '15 at 18:17
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I guess an important consideration here is how quickly a field evolves.

My field is condensed matter, and usually the paper stays with the editor one week or less, with reviewers one month and depending on recommendation this will be cycled until acceptance, although subsequent reviews tend to be faster. Then you get proofs/the paper appears online in overall a month or less.

I say that how fast the field evolves is important because for a hot topic many people will be working on the same problems simultaneously (think graphene a few years ago) and getting publication delayed by even as little of a couple of months might mean being the second, rather than first, to report a result.

I would imagine fields like History, literature and so on evolve much slower than say molecular biology or materials science. Then fast publication of research is not equally critical in every field. This doesn't mean of course that times couldn't ideally be reduced across disciplines.

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