The question peer-review administrators get asked more than any other is “How long will the peer review take?”.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to this – you might as well be asking us how long a piece of string is. Yes, most journals will know how long it takes on average and, yes, all journals will have a timeframe in which they aim to reach a decision; but this is all very subject to change and delays regularly occur.
The number of reviews an editor needs to reach a decision varies journal to journal, but the standard number is two. When we invite an expert to review a paper, we are almost always asking them to give up their time and expertise for free – and they are not always able (or, for that matter, willing) to do so.
It is therefore quite usual for the first potential reviewers who are invited to be unavailable. And often the second. And sometimes the third. This naturally causes delays – especially during periods when everybody’s busy such as end of term, or over the summer when everybody’s on holiday.
Once the required number of reviewers have agreed to read and comment on your manuscript, we must then wait for them to submit their reviews. Reviewers will always be given a timeframe in which to return their review; how long they are given depends on the journal and the subject area. For example, a journal publishing up-to-the-minute scientific research will probably only allow the reviewers one or two weeks; while a humanities journal may give them several months.
However long the reviewer is given, there is very little the journal can do to ensure that they stick to the deadline, other than to send them reminders. For journals using a peer-review system such as ScholarOne Manuscripts or Editorial Manager, reminders will be sent out automatically as the deadline approaches.
Sadly, it is not unheard of for a reviewer to agree to comment on a paper but never return a review resulting in the editorial team having to find a replacement reviewer.
Getting a third opinion
More often than not, the reviewers will have similar views on whether a paper is worthy of publication; however in any field there is bound to be differences of opinion on occasion and this can result in an editor receiving one review recommending acceptance with only minor revisions and another recommending an outright rejection.
In cases such as these, it may be necessary to solicit another opinion. This is never ideal as it means that the whole process of inviting reviewers then waiting for them to return their comments has to start all over again.
Don’t worry, you won’t have been forgotten
The beauty of the online submission system is that it is virtually impossible for a manuscript to slip through the cracks entirely, however long it may have been delayed. Although you will only be able to see what stage it’s at (and it may have appeared to be stuck at that stage for a frustratingly long time); the editorial team will have details of precisely what action has been taken, warning notices to let us know that the manuscript has been at one stage for too long, and will be working hard behind the scenes to keep the delays to a minimum.
But peer review doesn’t always take ages
No, not at all. In the majority of cases, the peer-review process will move swiftly and you will be sent a decision within a few weeks of submission. We don’t want your manuscript to get delayed any more than you do – our job is to do everything we can to get the latest research published as swiftly as possible.