Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

The Need for Speed

· July 6th, 2016 · No Comments

by WMQ Editor Josh Piker

At the risk of invoking one of my many least favorite Tom Cruise movies—or, as a quick Google search informs me, what looks to be a more recent (but even more uninspired) movie based on a video game—I’d like to talk for a minute about the need for speed.

Last year, I blogged about my efforts to speed up the peer review process at the Quarterly and, in particular, about the need for readers to return reports in an expeditious fashion. I was gratified that several readers noted, as they returned reports, that they had read the post.

An update: as things stand now, the average essay that’s sent to the Quarterly spends about three months in the peer review process, or perhaps just a bit more. Sometimes everything breaks right and the author’s wait is in the neighborhood of two-and-a-half months. A bit more frequently, there’s a slight delay in one part of the process or another, and the author has to wait about three-and-a-half months. Given that I aim to provide authors with five reports, and given that I ask readers to write in-depth critiques, three months—give or take—seems like a reasonable clock for the review process.

But. There is a caveat. I’ve talking here about the average. Authors’ experiences can vary dramatically.

Consider, for example, two manuscripts that I sent out for peer review on December 1, 2015. Team Quarterly has a database that tracks these sorts of things, but I also keep a personal cheat-sheet so that I can stay on top of the process. Here’s what my notes (with names redacted) look like for those two essays:

Author 1:

Reader 1 – asked 12/1; report received 1/4

Reader 2 – asked 12/1; declined

Reader 3 – asked 12/1; report received 12/15

Reader 4 – asked 12/1; report received 1/12

Reader 5 – asked 12/1; report received 1/16

Reader 6 – asked 12/7; declined

Reader 7 – asked 12/8; report received 1/24

Rejection letter sent 1/29.

Author 2:

Reader 1 – asked 12/1; report received 12/22

Reader 2 – asked 12/1; report received 3/29

Reader 3 – asked 12/1; declined

Reader 4 – asked 12/1; declined

Reader 5 – asked 12/1; report received 12/20

Reader 6 – asked 12/3; report received 1/13

Reader 7 – asked 12/3; report received 1/1

Updated 3/5 and 3/30. Acceptance letter sent 3/31.

So, two files sent out on the same day. In each case, I initially approached five scholars with the relevant expertise to evaluate the manuscript; when two declined, I approached two other scholars, both of whom accepted. In each case, I had a full slate of readers signed up within a week, and in each case, I gave the readers six-week deadlines, which is standard at the Quarterly. And yet one author got a decision letter from me on January 29, while the other had to wait two months longer for his/her letter. To be sure, I did update Author 2 twice, as the cheat-sheet shows, but all I could say was something along the lines of “I haven’t forgotten you, and I’m pestering the delinquent reader. More soon. I hope.”

What accounts for the difference in the authors’ experience? It’s not quality of scholarship. (In my experience, there is no relationship between an essay’s merit and the duration of that manuscript’s peer-review process.) The manuscript that flew through peer review was one that I ended up rejecting, while the delayed one will be published in October’s issue. The problem, quite simply, was Author 2’s second reader, who missed his/her deadline and proved to be remarkably impervious to pestering. Author 2’s penultimate report arrived on January 13; the final report—the one from Reader 2—arrived on March 29; the decision letter went out March 31.

This is what a delayed file looks like – not a bunch of people ignoring their responsibilities, but rather one reader (who I happen to know and like as a person and respect as a scholar) falling behind.

That one reader did eventually turn in a fine report, which is worth saying because not every delinquent reader does so. And it must be said, as well, that this scholar was (as is the case for all of our colleagues who serve as readers for the journal) volunteering his/her time and giving freely of his/her expertise to provide help to someone who s/he does not know. Writing a reader’s report truly is service to the field. In other words, there are no bad guys here. But there are delays, and delays have consequences.

Of course, in the abstract, we all know that. Let’s talk specifics.

Author 2 is a graduate student who will be on the job market in the fall. Had the final report arrived in time, the essay would have come out in July’s issue of the Quarterly. That would’ve allowed members of search committees to read the author’s scholarship in print before his/her file arrived on their desks/laptops, and it would also have allowed the author to include an offprint of the completed essay—rather than a photocopy or scan of page proofs—with his/her applications.

Instead, the essay will have to be marked “forthcoming” on the CV that the author sends out as part of his/her job search. And the essay will appear in print at the very end of October. Perhaps that will be in time for the author to use it for some late-breaking writing-sample requests? It certainly won’t be in time for members of search committees to learn about his/her work outside of the job search process.

And remember: this is an essay that I accepted for publication after only one round of peer review. That’s rare. Over the last two decades, only about 15% of manuscripts have been accepted without a second round of critique and revision. What if Author 2’s essay had required revision and another round of peer review before I accepted it? Then the delay in round one would’ve meant that the essay couldn’t possibly appear in the journal until late January 2017 at the earliest, which is after many departments will have issued invitations for campus visits.

But, again, the point of this post isn’t that Author’s 2’s second reader is a horrible person or a bad scholar. We’ve all been there, including me.

A careful reader of this post may well note that the examples that I’ve chosen actually make me look pretty good. After all, in both cases, the last report arrived and then, a couple of days later, I sent out a decision letter. That sort of efficiency is certainly one of my goals, but judging my success at achieving that goal from these two examples is like evaluating someone’s parenting skills by looking at the family pictures on the mantle. Somehow, we never display pictures of our kids sprawled on the floor in mid-tantrum, with tears and snot all over their faces. (Not that my kid ever did that, but don’t get me started about your kid.)

Thus, in the interest of balance and transparency, let me introduce you to:

Author 3:

Reader 1 – asked 2/8; report received 4/10

Reader 2 – asked 2/8; report received 3/1

Reader 3 – asked 2/8; report received 4/11

Reader 4 – asked 2/8; report received 2/16

Reader 5 – asked 2/8; report received 3/24

Updated 5/12. “Reject w/ option for resubmission” letter sent 5/16.

So, five readers asked; five readers accepted; five reports arrived. The readers did their jobs quickly and well. The last report rolled in on April 10, but my letter didn’t go out until May 16. On the one hand, that’s not a disaster, right? I mean, this is one of those just-over-three-months cases that I discussed above. On the other hand, there was a month-plus delay between the arrival of the final report and the writing of the decision letter. And that delay is entirely my fault.

What happened? A couple of things. When the last report arrived and I moved the folder to the “needs decision” file, there were other folders there that had been in the office longer. So I dealt with those manuscripts first. But by the time I finished those letters, it was early May, which started with four days of meetings with the OI’s Council and Executive Board; and that was followed up by a five-day trip to the Huntington for this year’s 2016 WMQ-EMSI Workshop. And, well, pretty soon an essay that was on track to sail through the review process was late enough that I had to update the author and apologize.

I don’t know what happened to delay Author 2’s second reader, but I assume his/her story is something like mine with Author 3. Again, we’ve all been there.

Of course, many of us have also been Author 2 or Author 3, knowing that precious time is slipping through our fingers but hearing crickets from the journal or the press. That’s never a good feeling, and “frustrating” doesn’t begin to describe that feeling if your career prospects are being undermined.

And so, as you volunteer your time to serve as a reader for the journal, please both accept my thanks and remember that everyone involved in the review process has an obligation to make sure that our own hectic schedules don’t negatively impact another scholar. Subpar actors aren’t the only ones who need speed. Our colleagues are waiting for us.

 

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