Thursday, November 3, 2011

Manuscript Submission Adventures

Since this summer, five manuscripts where I am the lead senior author and my different group members are first author were finally wrapped up and submitted. Most of these papers were supposed to go in before the arrival of Smurf, but I felt really ill for a long time, so they didn't. Now I am just happy for my very patient students and postdocs, who were really great sports about the delay. Among these manuscripts, the earliest submission has been accepted and is about to appear online any day now, and four are still in review. These are all comprehensive manuscripts (i.e. quite long) and on considerably different topics from one another.

One of them has been in active review (as in -- with different referees) for several months now and no report has been produced yet. Overall, the paper has been sent to N referees (N is approximately three times the number of needed reports), of whom N-1 have so far declined to review, having sat on the paper between a few days and several weeks before eventually deciding they couldn't do it. I am quite surprised by this development, because the paper is not very complicated; I have had manuscripts that were considerably more technically difficult, with lots of math to go through and therefore not the most scintillating read, and all such manuscripts reviewed just fine. This manuscript is not excessively long or difficult (mathematically), it's well-written (of course I am biased), it is on a topic in a very active area of research, and it has a solid connection to experiment. This is a reputable society journal, and they do ask that you provide a list of potential reviewers, which we did. Why it would be so hard to find some people willing and able to review it is really puzzling. I have to think that this is a failure on the editorial end, which would be uncharacteristic of this journal, probably combined with a very busy time of year for everyone (October submission window at the NSF). Other theories?

On another submission, we received the first report only 3 days after the review was solicited (the online system enables you to track when individual reviews come in). This is the fastest review I have ever received, and its speed is even more remarkable because the paper is long. Now, it's going to be another 3-4 weeks (if the other reviewers are conscientious) before all the reports are in, but in the meantime we can play the guessing game: is the super-speedy review positive or negative?

Is a referee report received after only 3 days likely positive or negative?
Positive
Negative
  
pollcode.com free polls 


I invite you to share your own adventures from the manuscript submission and review process.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I have to think that this is a failure on the editorial end"

I don't follow. The editor asked and people declined. Why would that be a failure at his end? I really don't see any way to tell why this happened. Maybe it was just a run of bad luck? Maybe some of the people asked were already reviewing one of your other four papers and as such felt more free to decline? Maybe people in that subfield are not very good at doing their social duty and reviewing papers?

In terms of the poll, I just couldn't vote. A quick review to me means only one thing: the person is familiar with your line of work, but that says nothing about good or bad. It could be an "of course, I was thinking of doing that myself, great work!" or it could equally be "this is wrong, I already did that and had to discard the experiment when we realized we had missed some hard to spot controls".

nick said...

As a chemist, I always made a habit of reviewing papers sent to me within a week. I wish all reviewers did the same. But they languish on desks for months and months in far too many cases.

Anonymous said...

Could be either but my vote is for negative. Specifically for the kind where they totally dismiss the paper and admit to not having read most of it. I got that once. The reviewer didn't like the idea and was apparently annoyed by a few egregious grammatical errors (my fault) and stopped half way though the introduction.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's necessarily a bad sign.

We recently received a review back extremely quickly (< a week). It was clear the reviewer was quite familiar with our subfield. They agreed with our approach and suggested one complication to discuss. Some reviewers -- even though the journal doesn't require it -- give detailed comments on the wording and figures but this reviewer didn't.

It could also be that the reviewer knows that they will soon being away/super busy and wanted to get the review done before that.

Doc said...

I review things quickly to prevent the 3-4 week delay. They just sit on my mind and fester if I don't...

Is it possible that your popular subfield has some competition in other groups? We've mused over a paper and then declined it (after reading it thoroughly) because it was too close to what we were after...

GMP said...

We've mused over a paper and then declined it (after reading it thoroughly) because it was too close to what we were after...

Yes, that's the right thing to do, because it's a textbook case of the conflict of interest. You can't be objective when it feels someone's about to scoop you. (Unfortunately, some people actually have no qualms about sinking the competition for no other reason than to further their own agenda. I would like to think they are a minority though.)

Anon at 3:33AM said: I don't follow. The editor asked and people declined. Why would that be a failure at his end?

The total number of review referrals that have failed to produce a report is significantly higher than is common for this journal, which has a huge referee base. Usually, I will have one, occasionally two people decline, but the number of declinations is now getting to be quite impressive (and not in a good way). But yes, it may just be a bit of bad luck and/or bad timing.

Alex said...

When I see reviews on my papers, I never know which one was the fast one. For all I know, the person who wrote the longest one did it fast and the person who wrote the shortest one put it off. However, I do find that short reviews are very bimodal: Either "This is fatally flawed, reject" or "Very useful paper! I'm sure your readers will find it most interesting! Keep up the good work! For cheap v!c0din click here!" (OK, maybe not the last part, but they do read like comment spam.)

If the work is solid (not necessarily perfect, but solid) then I think the short review will be positive.

OTOH, in grad school my advisor sent one of my drafts to a bigshot for critique. The bigshot wrote back quickly saying that there was a fatal flaw on page 2. Problem is, the bigshot had not read it carefully, or he would have known that I was invoking a very standard (and completely rigorous) mathematical result. Needless to say, we did not recommend him as a reviewer.

Namnezia said...

Alex said:
"OTOH, in grad school my advisor sent one of my drafts to a bigshot for critique. The bigshot wrote back quickly saying that there was a fatal flaw on page 2. Problem is, the bigshot had not read it carefully, or he would have known that I was invoking a very standard (and completely rigorous) mathematical result. Needless to say, we did not recommend him as a reviewer."

I hope you fixed you paper thought. If a bigshot in the field missed an important reference to a standard proof (or whatever you call it) in your field, then you may not making this connection or fact clearly in your writing.

Alex said...

Oh, we definitely revised the paper to make it more explicit, but I should note that it was already pretty explicit when we sent it to him.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

I heard a story from my mentor who submitted a paper, that the reviewer sat on for months, and then returned a "not interesting/not in the scope of this journal" response. Normally, I would think, (as does she) that a response like this should come from the subfield editor in a few days, before he/she decides what reviewer to send the paper to.

On the other hand, I've heard stories from "big shots" about trying to break their record of 1 week from submission to acceptance.

So it's hard for me to vote. If the editor has passed it onto a reviewer, it's probably positive?

Anonymous said...

Re: musing over and declining
I don't think I've ever received a full manuscript to read and then decide whether to review - apparently field specific, but in ecology you only get the abstract to read and you have to accept/decline based on that. Usually you can also see the authors, but that's occasionally redacted too in the initial email.
I tend to review papers on planes (although maybe that makes me a grumpier reviewer?), so a review gets done in whatever time elapses between me agreeing and me traveling...or, until the deadline if there's no travel.
You'll have to let us know what the first reviewer said when you get the ms back!

Anonymous said...

The fastest reply from a referee (to one of my manuscripts) was the same day! And that review was 100% positive and (given the short time it took the referee) also astonishingly detailed.

inBetween said...

May I just say that you are a goddess to have gotten so many manuscripts in with a brand new baby... I am mui impressed.

Anonymous said...

Editor of a social science journal -- I have some reviewers who turn in their detailed review in less than 48 hours -- every single time I ask them to review. And it is 1/3 of time accept/conditional accept; 1/3 revise and resubmit; and 1/3 reject. So don't think your poll will help you to decide. I myself try to review for other journals in 48 hours -- and again, range of decisions.

But I also want to say that when you submit matters re: editor being able to find reviewers. August-Sept: many people are overwhelmed with start of term OR haven't started yet and still on vacation; October: midterms and are super busy and thus I get a lot turn me down; December? Many good reviewers are writing their own stuff; January: I get a flood of papers (post-winter break writing successes) so more reviewers turn me down; and so on. So if you are turning a manuscript in during one of these peak times either for lots of new manuscripts OR when lots of reviewers are busy and thus say 'no' -- expect the process to slow down some. February? Lots quicker reviewing, usually.