Behind the scenes: time-to-decision
One of the things my collaborators and I take into account when choosing where to submit manuscripts is how long journals take to reach a decision on our submission. Getting ‘time-to-decision’ down has been a priority for all of my predecessors, and they’ve done an exceptional job — last year we took on average of 42 days (median = 38) to review and make decisions on manuscripts, a number of which we’re quite proud but that we are nevertheless trying to improve.
How can we do so? It means speeding up what takes place after you submit your manuscripts. In talking to our contributors, especially students, I’ve come to learn that what happens after you click the button on Manuscript Central that submits your manuscript is a bit of a mystery. Below I detail some of this, with an eye towards explaining what it would take to get decisions to you even more quickly than we already do.
1) Quality control: Step one. Did your files all make it? Are they legible? Did you include an abstract, key words, and cover letter? This takes a few minutes per manuscript, and our Editorial Assistant (EA) Wendy Martin does this really quickly.
2) Review by Editor in Chief and Assignment to Associate Editor: After Wendy has made sure the submission is ok, The Editor-in-Chief (EIC) gives the manuscript a quick review to make sure it is suitable for the journal. Is it conceptually suited? Are you addressing broad questions in tropical biology and conservation? Is it too system-focused, without placing the results in a broader theoretical context? Is it descriptive research? Is the writing/English ok? A small (5-10%?) percentage of manuscripts that are obviously not suited get rejected here. Once they pass this first quick review they get assigned to one of our Associate Editors (AE), who will actually “handle” the manuscript and make a decision once all the reviews are in. I try to log on to our system and do this review daily, though it might vary depending on what my teaching schedule is like, whether my kids are home from school, or if I have a grant proposal due.
3) Review by Associate Editor, assigned to Subject Editor: After I assign the article to the Associate Editor, they take another look at it to make sure it is really suitable for Biotropica, often in consultation with one the members of our Editorial Board. They then assign it to one of our Subject Editors (SE). The decision as to which SE gets the paper takes into account the topic of the paper, how many manuscripts each SE is currently handling, which SEs are actually available (we always have some doing fieldwork, on sabbatical, on parental leave, extremely busy with teaching, etc.), and the author’s preference (if you don’t suggest a SE when submitting the manuscript you really should). With a little luck, steps 1-3 take no more than 4-5 days.
4) Subject Editor reviews the MS, then assigned Referees: At this stage the MS gets one final review to make sure it is suitable by the SE before going out to the referees. SE’s pay special attention to things like the sample sizes, broader context and scope, and novelty of the research questions relative to the particular system or subdiscipline. If you’re counting, that makes it three levels of pre-referee review (EIC, AE, & SE). Why so much? Because it is really hard to get referees and we don’t want to burden them with articles that are obviously not suitable, flawed, or limited in scope and novelty. About 35% of manuscripts submitted in 2012 were rejected without peer review — we don’t make these decisions lightly, and often suggest to authors changes that would allow them to resubmit the manuscripts. Regardless, once the SE decide to send the paper for review, they use the Manuscript Central database and their own personal connections and contacts to come up with a list of potential referees. We then invite 2-3 of them to review the manuscript. If all goes well, these two will accept. My personal record is 10 requests sent out before I could get two referees. This step is the first bottleneck. Because invited referees sometimes don’t get back to us quickly, it can take us anywhere from 3 days to a few weeks to line up the referees for you manuscript. My impression is that this takes longer during the months when people are in the field, on vacation, or traveling to academic meetings (December and May-August for those of us in the northern hemisphere).
5) Waiting…waiting…waiting: We’re not at the mercy of the referees to return their reviews. This is the major bottleneck in time to decision. Some people are amazingly fast – I’ve gotten reviews back in 24 hours. Most people finish in a couple of weeks, though prompts we send them via email often remind them to meet their deadline. But some people simply forget or ignore us. This means we have to find additional referees, often calling in favors to get a speedy review on a manuscript that’s been waiting for several weeks.
6) All reviews submitted; SE makes recommendation to the AE. Once the final review comes in, the SE gets an automated email requesting they log on to Manuscript Central and make a recommendation. When I was SE I scheduled one morning per week to do editorial work, so my recommendations could take anywhere from 1-7 days from the time reviews were submitted to be sent to the AE. Sometimes the decisions were easy to make, but I often found I needed a few days to mull over papers that are really complicated with got mixed reviews – that could also slow down how long it took me to get recommendations to the AE. We could probably shave a day or two days off our time to decision by encouraging SEs to submit recommendations more quickly.
7) Final decision by the AE: Once SE makes a recommendation, the AE makes the final decision on the manuscript, drafts the email to the authors, and sends them the news. As with decisions by SEs, this can take anywhere from a day to a week, depending on the SEs current non-Biotropica workload, how they schedule their editorial duties, and the complexity of the paper, reviews, and recommendation. We could probably take a few days off time-to-decision here as well.
Given everything above, 42 days is preety good…especially when a large part of it is out of our hands. But we can do better, and are working hard to do so. For example, we implemented a system last year in which we get an weekly email from Wendy telling us the status of every manuscript that has been submitted to Biotropica and reminding the Associate Editors of any manuscripts awaiting their final decision and how long the MS had been in review. All AEs are copied on this email, so for me it was a great incentive to get to clean out my editorial inbox!
I hope this helps demystify some of what goes on behind the scenes.