The Pot and the Kettle, or, What We Can All Do to Speed Up the Review Process
by Josh Piker, Editor, WMQ
One of my goals as Editor is to make the review process as smooth and speedy as possible. The process isn’t always as smooth or speedy as any of us would like, and here’s a bit about why that might be so.
If an author sends an essay to the Quarterly, I hope to get them a decision letter and five readers’ reports within three months. For that to happen, an essay must spend no more—and hopefully a good deal less—than a month in my “New Arrivals” inbox before going out to readers, who then get their reports back within six weeks, leaving me with two weeks to finish my decision letter. That’s the goal.
Often I fail to meet that goal, and some of that is my fault. Backlogs happen when other responsibilities—a set of page proofs for a forthcoming issue; a one-off special project; a run of conferences—rear their ugly heads. But we’ve put in place safeguards to warn me if an essay is delayed and to ensure that I communicate with authors and readers about those delays. And I’m happy to report that, at this moment, my inbox is empty and there are only two folders in my “Needs Decision” file. That won’t last forever, of course. I will inevitably fall behind at certain points in the coming months. Sometimes, in short, the delays are on me.
But sometimes, gentle readers, y’all are the problem. I am incredibly grateful to the hundreds of you who volunteer your time and expertise to help evaluate the essays that are the journal’s lifeblood, and I understand how and why delays are the result of the many, may demands on your time. But we all benefit from a speedy review process. Allow me, then, to suggest three easy things that you can do to speed that process along.
First, respond to my emails asking you to serve as a reader. You don’t have to say “Yes,” although, of course, I hope that you will. But at least tell me “No thanks” quickly. If you wait a week or two to respond, then you’ve slowed the review process down by a week or two. If you never respond at all, then you’ve likely slowed the process down by more than that.
Second, once you’ve agreed to read the essay and we’ve sent it your way, open the attachment and look the essay over. I don’t mean that you should really dive into the piece right then and there, but spend fifteen minutes leafing through it. Is there a conflict of interest that you weren’t aware of? Do you have reason to believe that you’re not, in the end, the right reader for the essay? If so, fair enough. When you tell me there’s a problem within a day or two of receiving the essay, I can quickly move on to another reader. If you wait five or six weeks to even glance at the essay, though, then your suddenly discovered inability to serve as a reader has significantly delayed the review process.
Finally, of course it is immensely helpful if you meet the deadline. Okay, this one might not be as easy as the first two, but you knew that was coming. What you may not have expected to read is that roughly 75% of the readers return their reports within six weeks. That sounds pretty good! Actually, it’s not. Less than half of the essays that I send out for review are ready to move from the “Out to Readers” file to the “Needs Decision” file within six weeks. Why? I recruit five reports for each essay. If only 75% of the readers return their reports on time, then most essays will hit the six-week mark with fewer than those five reports. So, readers generally return reports on time, but essays are generally delayed by the smaller percentage of late reports.
All of that said, I understand that delays happen and that I am not the only person who sees unexpected responsibilities suddenly looming. And I know that I have missed deadlines of my own. I am, for example, all too aware that my second book was due at the press in June 2008 but didn’t arrive until August 2012. Not even close.
There is, then, very much a pot-calling-the-kettle-black aspect to this post. Still, pots can be cleaned and kettles can be polished. Please do what you can to help me make the Quarterly’s version of the review process as quick as possible.
As a fellow editor, I agree this is a major problem. I have come to the realization that as long as it’s all volunteer labor, nothing will change. We can ask — and we do — but that’s not going to change human nature. If someone told me being editor means spending all my time tracking people down and then badgering them when they’re late I wouldn’t have done it.
As the former editor of a peer-reviewed journal, I appreciate the way that Josh lays out the situation of managing these peer reviews. Yes, the schedule is tight; but it puts our responsibilities as a reader into perspective in terms of the machinery. Josh, perhaps, you would like to elucidate this further with some of the hallmarks of a useful peer review?