How long will I wait after submitting to a journal?
It’s the most nail-biting, nerve-wracking part of academic publishing, in my opinion: You work for months – or longer – on a project, collect and analyze all the data, and finally write the whole thing up (with the help of a qualified editor, yes?) and submit it to the journal that you hope will be happy to accept it.
Then you wait – an entire week! Not a peep from the journal.
You check the submission system to be sure your paper really was submitted. It was. You check your spam folder to rule out the possibility that your good news was mistakenly sent there. No luck.
You wait another week. And then one more.
You write a casual-sounding email to the editorial office of the journal, just to be sure your paper hasn’t fallen through a crack in the ether. No reply – or maybe a reply that, in essence, says, “We’ll get to it when we get to it, so cool your jets.”
How long should you expect to wait, and what are your options when your paper continues to be held hostage, and you can’t even determine whether it’s alive or dead?
The good news is that if you haven’t heard anything in 3 weeks, it’s unlikely that your paper will be rejected outright; i.e., it is probably going to be sent out for review. Rejections without review are some of the fastest communications you will ever have with a journal, so with each passing day that you hear nothing, the odds increase that you will at least be given the chance to have your work read by two or three of your colleagues, who will decide (in due course) whether it should be published in your chosen journal.
If you’re new to the world of academic publishing, you might be surprised to know that it can easily take 3 months for papers to be peer-reviewed. There are legends about papers that were accepted within 1 week, and about papers languishing in review for 6 years! In reality, 3 months is not so long when you consider all the steps that are required for peer review. The paper has to be skimmed by an editor, who will determine whether the topic is appropriate for the journal and whether the paper, on its face, seems to be worth reviewing. Then, if it is deemed worthy, it must be assigned to possible reviewers (who will, in their own time, decide whether they will accept the task of reviewing it). If the initially chosen reviewers decline to read the paper, it must go out to different reviewers, and that process starts again. Once the reviewers accept the task of evaluating the paper, the actual review can take several weeks (or longer), depending on the reviewers’ own schedules. After peer review, the editor must compose a letter to inform the authors whether the paper can be accepted as is (this is rare), accepted with minor revisions (this happens), possibly accepted with major revisions (this is common), or rejected without the possibility of resubmission (unfortunately, quite common). Of course, if a reviewer misses a deadline, reneges on reviewing, or becomes ill or experiences some other crisis during the review period, this can delay the whole process. If your topic is particularly esoteric or complex in its methods, it may take longer to locate reviewers who are able and willing to evaluate it.
How to minimize the stress of waiting
There are a few steps you can take to save yourself some heartache during this period. Actually, the first step takes place before you even submit: Check to see whether the journal publishes an explicit policy about the time it takes for peer review. A quick check revealed that Elsevier, which publishes over 2,500 journal titles, aims to send rejections without review within 10 days and to complete peer reviews within 80 days.
If your chosen journal doesn’t offer a timeframe for its review process, my suggestion is to wait at least 6 weeks after submission before inquiring about the status of your paper. In your message, you can politely ask about the usual timeframe for decisions. Some authors hesitate to contact the editor, fearing that this will somehow create a disadvantage for them in the process. In my experience, editors are so busy (and authors so anxious to hear a decision) that such messages are common and not taken as inappropriate.
Once you have learned how long you can expect to wait, relax into the necessity of waiting. Set a date on your calendar that is two weeks beyond the anticipated date, and don’t contact the editor again until those two weeks have passed.
What to do when you’ve given up on waiting
There may be times when, despite your polite inquiries and your patient waiting, the journal simply isn’t responsive to your need to have a decision. In such cases, it may be best to withdraw your submission and take your business elsewhere. If you’ve waited at least 3 months (or 2 weeks past the journal’s stated timeframe), and your inquiry as to the status of your manuscript is met with silence, simply write another polite email in which you advise the editor that you intend to withdraw the paper from consideration by the journal. You can offer a deadline, e.g., if you do not hear from the editor by a particular date (again, 2 weeks would be a fair amount of time), you will unfortunately need to withdraw your paper and submit it elsewhere. Alternatively, you can just notify the editor that you are unable to wait any longer and regret that you are withdrawing your paper so that you can submit it to another journal. Before you withdraw a paper from a journal, do consider whether you have a realistic chance of receiving a faster response from the next one, and how likely it is that you will be in a position to submit to the slow-responding journal again in the near future. If this journal is the go-to for researchers in your field, you may decide that a long wait is a smaller penalty to pay than not publishing there at all.
When all is said and done, the best defense against the plodding pace of peer review is to have as many papers in the pipeline as is feasible.