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In the mainstream publishing model, it can take more than a month from the time a manuscript is submitted to the time reviewers are assigned to review it. I feel this is a bit unfair as editors from these publishers generally require reviewers to submit their recommendation within a month from the time they agree to review. I believe the effort required to review a manuscript is much greater than the effort to find a reviewer.

My question is: Why can it take so long to find a reviewer?

25

There are several factors that can play into this:

  • Some journals have a strong editorial hurdle, i.e., a high desk-rejection rate, and the editor is expected to actually spend some time on the paper to judge its suitability for the journal. Thus editorial handling includes more than just finding a reviewer.

  • Some editorial systems only indicate that a paper is “under review” (or similar) when a reviewer actually agreed to review the paper, while others already do this as soon as the first requests have been sent to reviewers.

  • In some fields, it is common that reviewers blatantly exceed the allotted review time, so that the journal requiring their reviewers to submit their reviews within a month may still result in an average review time of two months or even higher.

  • Depending on the availability of potential reviewers for a given paper in the field, some journals follow a strategy of requiring reviewers to submit a review quickly, but take into account that many reviewers reject the request and they spend a considerable time finding reviewers.

  • Both, editorial handling and peer review do not take much work time in comparison to the allotted time (a day’s work or less in most disciplines). The main delay arises from the editor or reviewer having to find time for this given their other academic duties. Thus, if for example, the editor is on a conference for a week, they have to catch up with their regular work and the editorial work afterwards, which may amount to a significant increase of the editorial handling time.

  • Some editors are just slow.

  • Some papers, even if good science, are badly written. As a reviewer, sometimes it feels that the paper was written by a PhD student whose supervisor did not check the submission. I then feel I need to be diplomatic and encouraging and have to do the job of the supervisor, pointing out possible improvements and the such. Well-written papers are usually much easier/faster to review. With increasingly less time, I tend to increasingly decline such review tasks, as I feel it is unfair to the authors of well-written (independent of scientific content) papers to thus allocate my time. – Captain Emacs Dec 28 '15 at 12:21
  • peer review [does] take much time - not true for serious theoretical papers, at least in math (though this is a good answer) – Kimball Dec 28 '15 at 15:52
  • @Kimball: See my edit. – Wrzlprmft Dec 28 '15 at 19:04
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As a relatively newfangled academic editor of PeerJ Computer Science, I can tell you that actually finding suitable reviewers is substantially more difficult than what I used to give it credit for. For many papers that I get on my virtual desk I am not actually an expert, so I need to invest some time to look over the literature of the area to figure out who actually are suitable reviewers. My current "acceptance rate" for reviews is substantially below 20%, and it would be even much lower if I did not have a reasonable personal network (that is to say, at least 75% of all reviewers that actually accept are people I know personally). Approximately 50% of those that do not accept never respond, so you can't really tell whether they accept or not until you waited a week or so. And - particularly annoyingly - it is not unheard of that people accept a review but then never get back to you.

All in all, I would say taking one month to find reviewers is long, but not outrageous.

Small nitpick:

I believe the effort required to review a manuscript is much greater than the effort to find a reviewer.

While this is certainly true, an editor also typically handles many more manuscripts than a reviewer...

  • Wow, I had no idea so many people don't respond to review requests. I always accept or decline within a couple of days. (If only my reviewing were this quick...) – Kimball Dec 28 '15 at 15:55
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    Yet PeerJ [the life sciences, no data yet for the CS?] claims 22–24 day median time to first decision. So you do find them much faster than a month? Or is median<mean? – Beni Cherniavsky-Paskin Dec 29 '15 at 10:53
  • @BeniCherniavsky-Paskin People simply not responding to requests could have that effect (forming a "long tail" of decision times). – Klaus Draeger Dec 29 '15 at 12:46
  • @BeniCherniavsky-Paskin I can't speak for PeerJ CS in total, but my manuscripts typically take substantially longer than 22-24 days to first decision. Not close to the 5 - 6 months of other journals, but definitely more around the 1.5 - 2 months range. The one time I asked a reviewer for a review in two weeks (the default in the PeerJ system), the answer was a short "surely you are kidding?". – xLeitix Dec 29 '15 at 17:54
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If several of the people the editor asks decline to review (and especially, if they wait a while to respond and then decline) then it takes a while to assign reviewers.

Keep in mind also that editors are typically handling many papers simultaneously, which can be a lot of work in aggregate.

In some fields, there aren't that many suitable experts, so it's hard to find enough that are willing to review. See e.g. How long is too long to wait for a rejection because of a lack of reviewers?

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