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For The Record: Time and the Review Process

by Gary Natriello - 1999

One of the perennial problems of academic journals is the long period between the time a paper is submitted for consideration and the time it appears in the journal. This period can be as long as a year if all goes smoothly, that is, if a submitted paper is accepted following the first round of reviews and scheduled for publication by an editor. More typically, however, an author is asked to revise a paper after the first round of reviews and to resubmit it for reconsideration. In such cases the process may take from one and half to two years between the time the first version is submitted and the time the revised version appears in the journal.

The Problem of Delays in Publication

This delay between the first submission of a paper and the final publication is a problem from several different perspectives. First, a delay in the publication a high quality paper slows progress in a field. If a paper is a major contribution, then the sooner it is brought to the attention of the field, the sooner it can begin to influence the thinking and research of other scholars. Second, a journal with a long time to publication cannot cover progress in a field in a timely way. This may be less important in areas where progress is slow, but in an area where progress is rapid, readers will turn elsewhere to seek the latest news of research. Although this has always been somewhat of a problem, it is becoming more severe as other forms of communicating research results, from on-line posting to the popular media, offer faster access to relevant audiences. Any editor interested in having his or her journal at the forefront of a field will be concerned about a long delay in the publication of an important paper.

The long delay between first submission and eventual publication is perhaps most problematic for authors. Authors who have worked diligently on a project for a number of years are understandably anxious to have their work published. Moreover, less senior scholars are often under considerable pressure to have their work published prior to personnel reviews with implications for reappointment and tenure decisions. Editors receive anguished letters and calls from authors inquiring as to when a decision might be made on a manuscript so they can show it as accepted for publication on vitae submitted for promotion reviews. Sometimes senior colleagues or administrators involved in a personnel decision will also inquire about whether a manuscript is likely to be published in a journal.

Reasons for Delays

If is important to understand why authors and editors are to some extent bound to encounter delays in publication. The time period between first submission and publication is taken up with a number of tasks designed to promote quality in academic publishing. The first time consuming task is the initial assessment of a manuscript by an editor. Not only must the manuscript be checked to insure that it meets the basic requirements of the journal submission process often including such things as an appropriate cover page, an abstract, and a manuscript that does not reveal the identify of the author, but the editor must also insure that the manuscript meets the basic standards of writing for the particular journal. The latter is particularly important so that reviewers are not bothered with manuscripts that are inappropriate. This initial review can usually be accomplished fairly quickly, but it may take more time if the editor is occupied on other editorial tasks when a manuscript arrives or if a large number of new manuscripts arrive at the same time.

A second time consuming phase of the manuscript review process involves external reviewers, scholars in a field who are asked to review a particular manuscript. Such external reviews are essential to ensuring the quality of the articles that appear in a journal, but they do depend upon scholars volunteering their time to complete reviews. Individuals selected to review articles are typically experts in an area, and so are often called upon frequently to prepare reviewers. Most generously agree to review papers, but it sometimes takes them longer than they or editors would like to return the reviews. Moreover, editors typically invite several reviewers to examine a paper, and any single review that is delayed can delay the entire review process. All of this adds to the time between first submission and publication.

Once all of the reviews of a paper are returned to an editor, it takes additional time for the editor to read the reviews and reread the paper with the reviews in mind. The editor then has to make a decision about the paper and offer guidance to the author about what to do next. This is particularly time consuming if, as is most often the case, the reviewers and the editors are recommending substantial changes to the paper. Moreover, an editor is usually working on a number of papers at any one time so any particular paper may have to wait while an editor works on other papers.

There are other reasons why the actions of an editor may add to the delay in processing a paper. Editors of academic journals, like reviewers, are often volunteering their time as a service to the field. This means that editors typically have all of the other responsibilities connected with their regular jobs and can only get to their editing tasks when those other duties are completed. Of course, it is the volunteer work of editors and reviewers that allows academic journals to be sold at relatively low prices.

Editors may also add time to the review process when they need to think about a paper for a while in order to be most helpful to an author. The best course of action to improve a paper may not always be immediately obvious, and an editor may need to think about various options prior to communicating with an author.

Once a paper is accepted for publication there are other factors that can lead to delays in publication. The most obvious is that a journal may have a backlog of papers accepted earlier that must be published first. Journals typically have a budget for a certain number of pages that is relatively inflexible. During those periods when many papers arrive and are accepted the editor only has the standard number of pages to carry articles; correspondingly when fewer papers are submitted and accepted the editor must still fill the set number of pages. While the latter leads to authors receiving calls from editors asking them to speed revisions and send a final version of a paper as soon as possible, the former leads to longer waits for publication. It is impossible for an author to tell before submitting a paper what kind of cue there will be when a paper is accepted. Asking at the time of submission provides some indication, but things can change dramatically between the time of submission and the time of acceptance. Any editor may tell an author inquiring at the time of submission that there is only a small backlog of papers, but by the time a new paper makes its way through the review process, the backlog may have grown substantially.

There are additional reasons why a paper’s publication may be delayed after acceptance. Editors may wish to group papers that share similar themes to call attention to certain areas of research. Although such grouping is often in the long term best interest of the journal, the article, and the author if it brings the work to the attention of more readers, it can delay the publication while the editor waits for accompanying articles to be made ready for publication. In addition to delays due to grouping papers by theme, a particular paper may be bumped further down the cue if another paper with a particularly timely or time sensitive topic is accepted.

Solutions to the Time Problem


Solutions to the long delays prior to publication lie with two participants in the scholarly publishing process, editors and authors. There are a number of steps that editors can and do take to minimize the time authors must wait for their papers to appear. Aggressive editors are particularly anxious to reduce the time from submission to publication because long delays can deter authors from sending their best work to a particular journal.

Editors employ several strategies to minimize the time necessary to move a paper through the review process and bring it to the pages of a journal. First, editors can screen initial submissions to eliminate papers that are clearly inappropriate for a particular journal. This saves the time of the editorial office staff, the time of external reviewers, the time of authors whose papers are rejected at this point who can quickly submit such papers elsewhere and, perhaps most importantly, it saves the time of other authors submitting papers appropriate for the journal for these remaining papers can move more quickly through the review process. A second strategy used by editors to reduce the time of the review process is to contact potential reviewers prior to sending them manuscripts for review. These contacts, now often accomplished via e-mail, can reduce the number of reviewers who decline to review papers after receiving them in the mail. When a reviewer declines, of course, a new reviewer must be identified and the process begins all over. By getting commitments from reviewers prior to sending them a manuscript, the editor can often save several weeks.

Yet another strategy to move the review process along is for editors to send reminders to reviewers after they have had a manuscript for a period of time. Reviewers willingly work the time to review papers into their regular schedules and so may hold papers for weeks and even months. Reminders from editorial office staff serve to encourage reviewers to complete the reviews and forward them to the editor. These reminders can be done through post cards or letters, phone calls, or e-mail.

In addition, editors can expedite the review process by using a broad pool of reviewers instead of concentrating on a small group. It is quite natural to rely upon the most prominent individuals in a field to review papers submitted to journals. When these same individuals are repeatedly asked to review papers they become overloaded and either take longer to complete assigned reviews or begin to decline invitations to review.

Despite the best efforts of editors, editorial office staff, and reviewers, the process of reviewing papers for publication will take longer than many of those submitting their work will find satisfactory. Individuals early in their career will be anxious to have their work published to satisfy institutional requirements for reappointment, promotion, and tenure. All scholars are quite rightly interested in having their work appear as soon as it is available. What can scholars do to deal with the inevitable delays in the publication of their work?

Several strategies seem particularly helpful in managing the time problem. First, authors should follow the old advice of having their work read by colleagues prior to sending it off to a journal. Such readings can identify major problems with papers before they enter the journal review process and can save months if they eliminate a round of reviews from the publication process. Second, authors should plan the development and publication of their work so that they are not dependent upon the actions of any single editor or journal. All too often I hear from authors who are desperately waiting for a decision on a particular paper because they perceive their work or even their entire careers to be on-hold awaiting a decision regarding publication. Authors can eliminate their dependence upon any one editor or journal by planning a set of submissions to different journals simultaneously. By having a number of articles under active consideration at any one time authors can insure that their work will be published in a timely way. This is not just advice to work hard, be more productive, and turn out more publications; it is advice to think broadly about how to market one’s work, to identify different kinds of outlets for different aspects of the same project, and to capitalize on the ever more diverse set of academic publishing opportunities. Moreover, it is advice to avoid being in a position where your decision about where to send your next paper is dependent upon the decision you receive on a paper currently out for review.

Benefits of a Lengthy Review Process

Finally, on behalf of overworked and under-rewarded editors everywhere I want to note a few advantages of the lengthy review process typically associated with academic publishing. A long careful review process can lead to the improvement of the quality of academic publications if reviewers and editors take the time to examine papers carefully and if authors take the advice they are given to revise their work prior to publication. A lengthy review process can ensure that work eventually appearing in a journal is worth the time of busy readers. After all, academic journals are not simply providing the latest results to readers, they are building a body of knowledge deemed legitimate by experts in the field. This knowledge will be used by other scholars as a basis for further work, and it is important that this kind of foundation be sound. In addition, a long review process is one of the costs associated with keeping the production of academic journals in the hands of scholars willing to devote spare time to edit and review. This ensures that decisions about publication are made by active scholars in a field.

In closing, I can only say that if you have time to worry about how long it has taken me to get back to you about the paper you submitted, I am probably not sending you enough papers to review.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 4, 1999, p. 697-701
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10350, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 9:36:28 AM

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About the Author
  • Gary Natriello
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    Gary Natriello is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and the editor of the Teachers College Record.
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