Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Summer Cleaning

· August 23rd, 2019 · No Comments

by Joshua Piker, editor of the William and Mary Quarterly

Traditionally, of course, if there’s a season for cleaning, it is understood to be spring, not summer.  But for a variety of reasons, spring here at stately Quarterly manor—aka, the basement of Swem Library—was devoted to the more elemental task of keeping my head above water amidst the rush of WMQ and OI business.  Now it’s almost the end of summer in Virginia, but some details that I meant to wrap up this spring remain, well, unwrapped.  In particular, I’ve been meaning to revisit two topics that I’ve blogged about in the last few years: the time it takes for the average author to receive a decision letter from me, and the month-to-month flow of new manuscript submissions.

I’ve blogged at several points—“The Need for Speed”; “The Pot and the Kettle”—about how long it takes for an essay to move through peer review at the WMQ and the ways a manuscript can get delayed.  The upshot is that my goal is to provide an author with a decision letter and five readers’ report within about three-and-a-half months of the date of submission.

The process works like this.  Manuscripts that are sent to the journal go into my “New Submissions” box.  I read through them in the order that they arrive in the office and decide whether they are ready to enter the peer review process.  Ideally, I’ll get a new submission into the readers’ hands within two weeks of initial submission.  We ask readers to return their reports within ninety days.  Once all the reports for a given manuscript have arrived, the file goes into my “Needs Decision” queue, which I work through based on the date on which the essay was submitted: first come, first served.

Again, three-and-a-half months from initial submission to receipt of my decision letter is the goal, but four months is closer to my historical norm.

I’m sorry to say that, in the last year, there have been several exceptionally busy periods in which the average author has had to wait five months for my letter and the readers’ reports.  And it pains me to report that some authors have been unfortunate enough to experience the perfect storm of peer review-related delays: the manuscript arrives when I am totally swamped, and so it waits on my desk for longer than it should; the readers miss their deadlines (which delays the process) or fail to complete the assignment (which means I’ve got to start over w/ another reader, which really delays the process); the reports finally arrive back in my office, but the manuscript gets stuck in my “Needs Decision” queue because I haven’t been able to work through the files as quickly as I should.  Those problems—individually or in combination—can add another month or two to the average wait-time.

I am very aware that delays of this sort are, to say the least, frustrating.  I appreciate the authors’ patience, and I work to stay in touch with them.  I update authors on the status of their manuscripts, and I urge them to reach out to me at any point with questions or concerns.  We also have a system in place for sending reminders to readers who have missed their deadlines, first with emails from my staff and then with personalized emails from me under the subject line “Pestering.”  But sometimes what I really need is an eighth day of the week, although I’d settle for a twenty-fifth hour of the day.

At any rate, I am happy to report that the trend-line is, once again, pointing in the right direction.  The average submission-to-decision time has crept back to about four-and-a-half months, and that number is falling rapidly.

As of right now, only two of the manuscripts out for review are delayed.  Both arrived in the office on March 25, and in both cases I’m struggling to get one last reader to turn in his/her report.  The other files are, at this point, on schedule.  In fact, I just wrote a decision letter for a manuscript that arrived in the office less than two months ago.  I’m a bit embarrassed by how happy that made me.

All of which is to say that what has been the unofficial motto of the WMQ since the late fall—“Sorry For the Delay”—will no longer be making regular appearances in my decision letters for the foreseeable future.

And speaking of submissions, in “Summertime Blues” and “Summertime Blues: A Retraction,” I blogged about first seasonal patterns in manuscript submissions and then the changes in those patterns after authors took into account the initial post.  Here, I simply want to pass along a month-by-month breakdown of our submission numbers for January 2015 through July 2019.

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
January             7 January              9 January             6 January           12 January           15
February         11 February          11 February         10 February         12 February         12
March               5 March              11 March             11 March               5 March             16
April                  6 April                  3 April                 6 April                 7 April               11
May                  9 May                   7 May                11 May                10 May                10
June                10 June                   5 June                  7 June                  8 June                  9
July                   6 July                   12 July                13 July                  7 July                  2
August              8 August               9 August            13 August            17
September        6 September       10 September        5 September      10
October             5 October             8 October            9 October          11
November         7 November         5 November        8 November      13
December        10 December          6 December         6 December         5
90 96 105 117 75


If you compare those numbers to the ones in the original “Summertime Blues” post, you’ll see that our submissions numbers have been rising (which partially explains why I’ve been in the weeds).  Are there other trends of note?  Well, the fall months seem to have emerged as a relatively slow season for submissions, and ditto for April.  The numbers for a given month, though, can fluctuate dramatically.  E.g., I’ve now been Editor for six Julys, and the submission numbers for those months are 18, 6, 12, 13, 7, and 2.  So my advice is that you not try to game the system.  Submit your essay when it’s ready, and know that I will get to it absolutely ASAP.

But there is one important detail in that chart that’s worth calling to your attention:  we received only two submissions in July.  Those are already out to readers.  That means my inbox is empty.  Just saying.

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