Where are my papers?

Let’s face it, it’s been a while since I had a good complain about something, so in the usual holiday manner (the spirit is  supposed to be merriment, but let’s face it, the tradition isn’t!) here’s someone grumpy complaining. There’s another moan to follow tomorrow but I’ll sweetn the deal by following this with comments on theropod sociality and my reviews on the zoo and aviary in Pittsburgh.


It’s customary for me to whine about reviewers and editors periodically and for once it has been a while since my last effort. However, the Christmas break has allowed me to try and catch up with a few little things, one of which has been to see what has befallen various papers I’m involved in and if there has been any news of them. While I do have a pretty large volume of manuscripts with various journals, to be honest it’s not pretty reading. Now sure there are valid reasons for papers being delayed (and of course the Christmas period doesn’t help), but you would hope that the occasional paper would run to time, or be processed in a timely manner.

By my count I currently have 9 manuscripts in out with journals. Of these, based on the ideal review times listed by the journals or what I can remember when being asked to review for them, 8 are now late. The last one will be late if it’s not back to me this week and I have good reason to think it won’t be.

There are couple more which have recently been returned, one in a timely manner and one late, and there are a couple of book chapters which are literally years overdue. More than that, despite contacting editors about them, in some cases I have no news at all what is happening to the paper (including one submitted in July!) and in one case the manuscript is awaiting assignment of referees when it is a resubmission. You’d assume they’d be sending the paper back to the same people, and even if they refuse to review something a second time, does it really take three months to send them out?

In short my manuscripts are late by the standards of the journals themselves. In more than one case things are profoundly late, and in a couple I can’t even find out what has happened to the manuscript. Referees seem to run late as a near matter of course and often they are given months toe review something a handful of pages long anyway, something that annoys me profoundly. But when papers aren’t even being sent to referees for weeks, even months, it’s very annoying. Even if a referee is superb and turns around a review in a few days, if it didn’t reach him for weeks, or the review doesn’t reach me for weeks, then the whole thing is going to be late. It’s especially when journals try all these little tricks like publish uncorrected proofs and the like to get the papers out as early as possible. So, it’s clear they value a paper that’s ready for publication being hurried into availability, but then they make no effort at all to actually have papers edited or refereed in a timely manner.

Now sure, maybe this is happening to everyone, but really is that an excuse? As I’m fond of saying about this, writing that review, or mailing out to ask for referees, or check a set of corrections or whatever takes the same amount of time to do today as it will in 2 weeks, or 6 weeks or even 6 months. And while you might be busy this week, and even next, I don’t think it’s excusable to sit on something for months at a time. It does the author a disservice and for that matter both the journal and the field as a whole. Science is not served by papers, perhaps important papers, being held up by months, even years, because people won’t do the work they said they would.

Is it really this bad for palaeo, or am I profoundly unlucky? Looking back over my past papers and various submissions I would say the average review time for a manuscript of mine is about 5 months, and I’ve had half a dozen that were over 6 months from submission to return. Conversations with colleagues suggests that I have had some bad luck and the extremes I’ve occasionally suffered (over a year on 2 occasions, and several more over 6 months each) are the exception. Even so, I’d be intrigued to know what this is like for my colleagues and indeed for those in other fields of science and research.

10 Responses to “Where are my papers?”

  1. 1 Heinrich Mallison 03/01/2012 at 10:51 am

    First off, it seems I am on average even more unlucky than you are. I had some quick reviews, but the average was around 5 months.

    One thing to remember is that the funding situation has gotten horribly worse for many people. That means extra work, and that means that volunteer editors are swamped. Same for reviewers. So I guess it is not so much laziness, but more being overworked and incapable of saying no.

    • 2 David Hone 03/01/2012 at 11:10 am

      Well that might well be a part of it, but this has been true since my first papers half a dozen years ago, so I can’t think it’s all that recent (though it may have gotten worse). And I’d still stand by my “if it takes 5 hours to do, it’ll take 5 hours today or 5 hours six months from now”.

      I guess the real ‘test’ might be how other fields are faring. I’d doing some work with a friend of mine who is an ecologist and he was horrified to learn that any journal could take more than 4 weeks, and he considered 2 weeks the norm. Enough palaeo journals do seem to manage it, and certainly lots of referees are quick (it only take 1 of 2 or 3 to slow down the whole process) so it doesn’t seem that hard.

      I don’t think anyone is lazy. But while I understand there are always lots of priorities, I don’t think people should be trying to do things they don’t have time for. In several cases I find it really hard to credit that they could not have found a couple of hours to review a 10 page ms at some point in 6 months!

      • 3 Heinrich Mallison 03/01/2012 at 12:38 pm

        “I don’t think people should be trying to do things they don’t have time for.”

        that’s the key issue. And in the last 12 months I have heard people say “I can’t do this anymore” a lot. 😦

      • 4 David Hone 03/01/2012 at 12:44 pm

        Well that is obviously going to be a big problem. I’ve not seen that in my minor editorial roles, though I could have been lucky in getting people willing to do things.

        As a referee maybe I’m too nice, I’ve only ever turned down one paper to review (as I didn’t have time, i was about to go into the field and it was a biggie) and I’ve returned them all on time, indeed early. I try to do them within a week.

      • 5 Mike Taylor 17/01/2012 at 11:48 pm

        “I don’t think anyone is lazy.”

        Except Darren, of course.

  2. 6 David 03/01/2012 at 11:52 am

    What you’re experiencing sounds about the norm in economics, but is very slow in other natural science areas I have submitted in. I am annoyed when journals don’t properly. For example, I resubmitted a paper (econ) at the end of August I think and then in December asked the editor what had happened (he’d just sent me another paper to review). He said he’s gotten one report back from one of the original referees but the other one only agreed in late November to review the paper again “for some reason”… 3 months is a long time for a first review in the climate change/epidemiology areas I have submitted in in natural science. I haven’t seen any journals actually saying how long a review should take though I’ve seen claimed stats on the averages of some (usually academic society journals).

    Nine papers under review is a lot! I only have two under review at the moment.

    • 7 David Hone 03/01/2012 at 12:01 pm

      It is a lot, though bear in mind some of these date back to April-June, and I’m the lead author on only half. I can sign off on a paper as a coauthor, but if the lead author doesn’t finish it off or I have to wait for approval from my coauthors for another 6 months, then things can apparently build up. One of those was basically done and as far as I was concerned could go that day, but it took nearly 3 months to get my coauthors to read it and approve it. So oddly I ended up submitting two papers on consecutive days even though they were ‘finished’ months apart.

      • 8 Andy Farke 03/01/2012 at 6:08 pm

        Being lead author does afford some freedom. . .I learned a project management tip from a noted colleague which is very helpful for the final push into publication when co-authors are less-than-responsive. Basically, when you’re ready to submit you send the near-final draft with a note to the effect of “The paper is almost done – I’m hoping to submit in a week, so I’ll assume you’re ok with it if I don’t hear from you by that time.” If there is no response in the allotted time, a “last chance” email is very effective at rattling loose final comments. Of course, you always need to be flexible for colleague’s personal and work life, etc., but I find the “soft ultimatum” strategy (when done tactfully) to be an effective way to keep things moving. Being a bit of a taskmaster can be unpleasant, but is a necessary evil. Sadly, you’re out of luck on this if you’re not lead author!

      • 9 David Hone 03/01/2012 at 6:42 pm

        Good idea Andy. Also doesn’t work if there’s something you absolutely need from said co-authors…

  3. 10 Zhen 04/01/2012 at 2:15 am

    This is a interesting look at behind the scenes of scientific community that us regular joes don’t see or know about. Always imagined it would be different, but hey, that’s why I love reading this place.

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