bad academics · best laid plans · faculty evaluation

Why is peer review so slow?

A couple of weeks ago, an article of mine was rejected by a journal, and that was pretty depressing. But what was shocking about it was that the rejection only took eight weeks. I have never before had anything at all come back to me, positive or negative, in fewer than six months.


Most of the journals I submit to and review for have web interfaces that manage the submission, review assignment and tracking, communication of decisions, and editing of manuscripts. There’s no lag for postal service, no random piles of papers on desks into which an article might fatally fall. Hell, these tools even create sorted pools of potential reviewers in their databases. My experience might not be the literary norm–I am, I admit, a new media and digital humanities scholar and we always have nicer toys.

However! It does not take six months (or eight, or eighteen) to competently review a paper. It probably takes some time (a week? Two weeks?) for a submissions editor to find and secure an appropriate reviewer or two for a paper. It certainly must take a little bit of time (a week? Two weeks?) for the journal editor or editors to read the reports and settle on a decision. The papers I review take me anywhere from an afternoon to a day to read and report on a submission, and I can fit this into the week or two after it is assigned to me.

By my count, peer review is a process that should take, generously, about eight weeks to do.

I do about five peer reviews a year. Maybe that’s too many. Maybe I get asked more frequently because I’m fast and thorough, and write good reports. Maybe everyone else sits on their reviews for six months because they are prioritizing their own research at the expense of service in ways I should be emulating. Maybe they are cannily doing just enough peer review to get some kind of merit credit for it, and no more (and certainly, no faster.) Maybe I’m falling into gendered Mommy-to-the-profession behaviour by taking my reviewing so seriously and doing it so assiduously.

Nevertheless, peer review has to get done by someone, and so I beg of you, colleagues at large: if you agree to do a peer review, just get it done. Don’t put it off until the end of the month, the end of term, the end of time. Don’t wait until you get an email from the submissions editor telling you it’s already late, and then ask for a six week extension. Your colleagues are counting on your feedback to help them advance in their thinking and in their careers. Because I don’t want to get stuck doing the reviews you flaked out on, and I also don’t want to get stuck in ‘under review’ limbo for a year when my tenure committee is evaluating my research effectiveness.

* * * * * * *

I wrote up this post as a draft in August, and I’m just coming back to it now. And do you know what? I’ve got two late peer reviews on my desk right now. Yeah, karma’s a bitch, and now that the shoe of righteousness is on the other foot, I guess I’m the bad academic. My high horse has thrown me into the mud. How did that happen?

Oh man. How do you tackle peer review–the deadlines or the waiting or the procrastinating or the report-writing? And how do you handle both yourself and the review when you find yourself, like me, failing so spectacularly to live up to your own standards?

5 thoughts on “Why is peer review so slow?

  1. From Julie R, who can't make Blogger behave and post her comment:

    “On peer review…

    “I agree with Aimee's excellent strategy. Do a certain amount per year, do what you say you'll do, and do them fast. Why I am saying all this? Because as the managing editor for a journal, I struggle to get my colleagues to even respond to a review or worse, never doing one. My first book was held up for TWO YEARS by a reviewer who wouldn't get back to the press, but who also kept insisting that s/he would do the review.

    “We're in a profession, and so we rely on our colleagues. Sometimes we are the colleagues others rely on. For all its problems, peer review is still a good way for the scholarly worlds to operate as a community. So if you've ever had something reviewed, pay that forward and be a reviewer yourself. Say no when you must because we can't say yes to everything.

    “And just like other kinds of writing, put it on your calendar and just do it. Editors everywhere (including me) will thank you.”


  2. Thanks for this: Though I am not a managing editor of anything (yet) I, like you and Julie, feel that working in this profession means taking on peer review, and further, that taking on peer review means doing it quickly and well. Waiting to hear about whether or not an article has been accepted mean waiting to see whether I can put it on my CV to apply for one of the two jobs advertised in my area so far this year. Waiting means waiting to see whether or not I can put entries on postdoc applications.

    I started doing peer reviews last year. It is fulfilling, and while this is work that requires time, it is not hugely intensive in its demands. I agree: if you do agree to peer review, do it well and do it quick. If you can't make the deadline don't agree to do it in the first place.


  3. I just received a ms for review from a highly reputable journal that publishes monthly, with online early views of accepted mss etc. But I can see from the electronic details that the ms was submitted to the journal two months ago. I can only assume/hope that the journal had tried other reviewers without success before turning to me, because if it takes two months for the editor/associate editor to send it out for review then there's a huge problem. BTW, I consider it a professional responsibility to review mss because someone has to review mine! But I don't agree to review unless I know I can turn it around within two weeks. I also limit myself to one review per month. And I no longer bother to edit for grammar or style, only for substance, which saves a huge amount of time.


  4. Oh Nancy! That's no good! I hope you're right, and that someone else had a crack at this before it got to you. How awful to think that a submission didn't get sent out for two whole months. Just sitting there. In someone's database, wilting alone …

    Erin, yeah, I really like doing peer review–at least it means I'm reading articles and staying fresh in what's happening in my field. I kind of like seeing what publication looks like from the other side of the editor's desk, right? But it does make me insane to wait and wait and wait for stuff, when I really want to put something in the 'win' column, you know?


  5. Julie R's comment raises another issue. People need to get better at saying “no”. Saying yes when you really don't have time or don't give this particular task high priority is messing someone else up.

    If you can't fit doing the review into your schedule in the next month — by which I mean actually putting an appointment to do it in your own calendar — then say “no”. And if you say “yes”, put that appointment in your calendar and do it.

    You can't say “no” every time. But nor should you feel guilty about saying “no”. And saying “no” means the editor can find someone else to do it and get the process underway.


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