No one likes to wait. But this often happens in the peer review process.
You’ve submitted a manuscript to a journal. You’ve managed the submission system and uploaded all your files correctly. You’ve received an email from the editor telling you that your article has been sent out for peer review. So far so good.
But then… you wait. And wait. Like waiting to find out your test results from the doctor.
How long should you have to wait to receive comments from peer reviewers and the journal editor?
Up to about 3 months maximum (studies have shown that peer review typically takes between 7 and 12 weeks on average), but there are a lot of variables to take into account.
Here’s some insight into what goes on and how you can give your next manuscript submission a shove in the right direction.
Table of Contents
The good, the bad, and the crazy of waiting to get published
Authors often have little or no idea how long they should wait. Consequently they often end up waiting for far longer than they need to.
Some waiting it to be expected but if it’s getting too long: Don’t wait, communicate!
Some waited over 5 years to get published
A 2016 survey by Nature Research (see image below) showed some 30% of authors ended up waiting 6 months to 1 year for their articles to be published. In 37% of cases the wait was 1–2 years.
A shocking 15% of survey respondents waited 2–3 years, while 8% waited for 3–5 years.
Even worse, 3% of the 3,644 authors surveyed had waited over 5 years for one of their articles to appear in print
You can start a family in that time!
It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
What’s the average wait?
The average waiting time for authors across academic publishing is actually just 90 days from submission, through peer review, to publication.
This is better than it used to be. Some thanks goes to our era of fast online publishing and open access for articles.
- PNAS averages 10 days from submission to initial decision, 45 days from submission to decision on a full review, and 6.4 months for submission to publication. This is, however, a highly selective journal.
- Open-access journal PLOS ONE takes around 43 days to first decision. Then, all sorts of variable come into play, because the journal deals with such high volume and breadth of studies.
A study of 3,000 articles
A study by Huisman and Smits extracted data from more than 3,000 articles submitted to one website (SciRev). It showed that peer review time in samples ranged from under 4 weeks to more than 3 months, with 10% having to wait even longer.
Interestingly, less than 20% of articles surveyed were rejected without peer review and, indeed, the length of review (up to a point, about 2.5 months) correlated with higher perceived “quality” on the author’s part.
Stages of the submission process include
- Processing the initial article: 1–2 weeks
- Selecting peer reviewers: 1–2 weeks
- Sending the paper out for review and waiting for comments: 3–6 weeks
- Rendering an editorial decision: 1–2 weeks
The problem is: Peer review often doesn’t go smoothly.
- Editors forget.
- Editors can’t find well-matched peer reviewers to work on submissions (actually the most common reason for delay revealed in surveys).
- Editors have a huge backlog to work through.
- Editors have day jobs as full-time academics and are performing tasks for journals “on the side.”
- Peer reviewers don’t always respond to editorial requests, or take a very long time before they submit their reviews.
These things are a mix of human nature and a bit unacceptable.
So really, how long?
So, how long should you wait for your next paper to come back from peer review? Not more than 10–12 weeks, or up to 3 months. Read on to find how to avoid hitting that point and find what to do if you do actually hit it.
How to speed up the review process
There are a number of ways you, the author, can speed up the review.
Newer and open access journals
One way is to select newer and open access and journals. A study found reviewers and editors with these journals tend to be more enthusiastic. It’s often harder, however, for editors to find suitable, able reviewers at older and more established journals.
Engaged journal editors search for eager peer reviewers who can do their review and give comments relatively quickly.
This is often done at journals by adding effective reviewers to journal editorial boards so that some recognition passes back to an individual’s CV or resume.
Publishers know that peer review tasks, performed by busy, working academics are very often not considered important by their institutions as part of academic assessment processes.
We also always select at least five or six reviewers for each paper to ensure that we get back a number of comments within our target review time: 6 weeks in our case. Our goal, above all, is to keep authors happy. This will also raise our impact factor.
Another explanation, though, is that reviewers are simply not being careful enough. This was shown to be partly the case in a well-known pathology journal that had lowered review speed to 16 days for an initial decision.
Yet still, no matter how responsible and well-managed journals may be, there are times when you can give them a nudge.
You can write a polite email to your journal editor and ask what’s going on.
Write the journal editor and ask for an update
Take a deep breath first, no matter how much pressure you’re under. You must keep your cool and mind your manners when your journal is leaving you hanging.
Be polite and professional. Make sure you write your email so as to give something back to the editor, to help and support them, rather than being aggressive or angry (as so many authors are in these situations).
Help them out
You need to make this as easy as possible for the editor. They’re not likely going to remember you right away.
Put all necessary information into your inquiry emails: Names of authors, paper title, the initial manuscript number and date of submission.
If you didn’t include peer reviewer suggestions in your initial cover letter, add them now. If you did include them (as you should have), suggest a few more.
What to write
Address the editor by name (typically, Professor + Last Name or Dr. + Last Name).
Using someone’s name directly in correspondence is one of the most effective ways to get their attention and put them in a favorable mindset to help you: “A person’s name, in any language, is the sweetest and most agreeable sound,” as Carnegie said.
Dear Professor Jones:
Thank you very much for your time taken with our recently submitted manuscript (add title and number here).
We wondered if there is something we can do to expedite the processing of our manuscript. Please inform us about any issue you may have encountered.
We also understand that it can be challenging to find suitable peer reviewers. Accordingly, we are providing a number of candidate peer reviewers with their contact information. These are as follows:
[add peer review info here]
Thank you again for your time and consideration. We await your response.
Suggesting peer reviewers
An effective inquiry email to an editor about a manuscript should ideally contain a number of additional peer reviewer suggestions. That’s because it’s quite likely that your paper’s review is being held up by failure to secure reviewers.
Many journals have removed the option for authors to suggest peer reviewers from their submission systems because these were often open to abuse.
But in a cover letter or inquiry letter to a journal you can make suggestions. (Check our Reviewer Recommendation service if you want a customized list of international researchers in your area of specialty).
Who not to suggest
Do not suggest people you work closely with, or colleagues you’ve published with recently, as these are conflicts of interest.
You also cannot nominate students who’ve worked with you, or other close colleagues. Editors will check your (and their) recent publication lists. They want to know:
- Is it their field?
- Do they have time?
- Is there any conflict of interest?
Who to suggest
Nominate those working in the same field with whom you’ve had no conflict. Ideally, these are researchers who will likely provide an overall favorable view of your work.
This is why it’s a good idea to talk about your work pre-publication, to share it on preprint servers or send it out to colleagues internationally and ask them for feedback.
Receiving positive feedback on work yet to be published means you have a potential peer review nomination you can put into your inquiry letter when you write and ask for an update on your submission.
Assistant professors and earlier stage researchers are also better candidates, as they are actively building their reputations. They’ll have more time and energy for peer review than top researchers leading their own labs.
In sum: Patience is a virtue, but you don’t have to wait years
Three months is a good rough deadline for when you can get in touch with the journal.
Be polite. Be courteous. Give something back to the editor and you’ll more than likely get a positive response. Check out our webinar “Effective communication during the submission and publication process” for practical tips.
The bottom line is: Don’t wait, communicate. The painful wait you’re going through may be something you can help resolve.
Get your free template for writing a manuscript submission inquiry letter below.