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. The editor emailed telling you your article was sent out for peer review. So far so good.
But then you wait. And wait…
How long should you have to wait to receive comments from peer reviewers and the journal editor? In other words, how long does peer review take?
Short answer: It takes up to about 3 months (studies have shown peer review typically takes 7–12 weeks), but there are a lot of variables to take into account. These include the journal’s internal processes and publication frequency, availability of peer reviewers, and other things out of your control.
Here’s some insight into what goes on and how you can give your next manuscript submission a shove in the right direction.
The good, the bad, and the crazy of waiting to get published
Authors often have little or no idea how long peer review takes, and how long they should wait before doing something. And they often end up waiting 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.
Some 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).
Here a few simple rules to choosing a reviewer:
- Look to your reading and references
A good place to start looking for potential reviewers is in the articles you read or references you’ve used. Authors on these papers will be knowledgeable in fields related to your work and therefore would have a good background from which to assess the various aspects of your manuscript.
You may have met people at conferences, poster sessions, or other networking events. These people are active in your field and may have shown interest in your work. They will also be up to date on the literature and techniques in the field and so would make excellent candidates to review your manuscript.
- Aim for younger and mid-level researchers
Heads of department or high-level professors may seem like the most ideal people to evaluate your manuscript; however, they are likely too busy to take on much peer review. Younger scientists are in the process of establishing their careers and authority in the field so they are more likely to be active in the peer review process.
- Be cross-disciplinary
If your work is interdisciplinary or uses an analysis method from another field, consider suggesting researchers in this area as well. Although they may not be as familiar with your primary field, they will have the expertise to evaluate your use of the method, which is an important overall contribution to improving your manuscript.
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. Hopefully, it’s worth the wait, because even Hollywood movies see the value of peer review in validating your study.
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.