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Regarding Journals and the Review Process

I thought it might be useful to the iMechanica community to write something about the review process in scientific journals.  For full disclosure, I am one of the co-editors of the Elsevier journal Finite Elements in Analysis and Design.  Indeed, it is precisely that editorship which informs the content of this blog post.  

Authors who submit manuscripts are often surprised to learn that the review process can take quite a long time.  This does vary from journal to journal, depending on the time given to reviewers at various stages in the process.  In the field of applied mechanics / computational mechanics at least, I would say that an average time to obtain reviews on an article is somewhere between 3-6 months.  

What accounts for the time frame?  There are two main factors:


  1. Identifying reviewers who will actually agree to review the manuscript.  Most journals seek reviews from at least two individuals with the requisite expertise.  This can be a lengthy process.  Often times, the "usual suspects" are already reviewing a manuscript for the journal, or else they have recently reviewed one.  Editors send invitations to prospective reviewers, and individuals don't often respond right away.  Some don't respond at all, effectively delaying the whole process.  
  2. Obtaining reviews in a timely manner.  Reviewers are given a window of time to review the manuscript.  Many individuals simply do not finish their reviews within the allotted time.  When they don't, editors normally remind them that their review is late.  Still, many reviewers simply choose to ignore these reminders.  After several reminders, the editor may have no other choice but to seek additional reviewers.  As described in #1, this can be a lengthy process.  


In my experience, the following scenario describes what happens for manuscripts that take a long time to review.  First, some of the initial reviewers will simply not respond to the request to review.  This can proceed for several rounds.  Then, the reviewers who have agreed to consider the manuscript will take a fairly long time to complete their review, to the point that other reviewers will need to be invited.  All of this happens "behind the scenes" from the authors' perspective.  All they can see is that their manuscript is "in review".  I think the assumption many people make is that some reviewers have been sitting on their manuscript for several months.  This does occasionally happen, but it is much more likely that it has simply taken the journal editor a long time to identify reviewers who have agreed to consider the manuscript.

So what can you do to speed up the process?  Several things.  First of all, when you submit a manuscript for review to a journal, provide as many names of suitable reviewers as you can.  The word "suitable" here is important.  Ideally these should be people whose expertise is narrow enough that they will understand the bulk of material within your manuscript.  Normally these can be identified from the authors of the manuscripts that appear in the list of references. Many people make the "mistake" of simply suggesting well-known experts in the general field of knowledge, rather than people with specific expertise related to the content of the manuscript.  At minimum, you should provide the email addresses for any reviewers you suggest.  Make certain that this information is correct and up-to-date.  If you can also provide some written justification/explanation as to why you believe the reviewer is suitable, that can be incredibly helpful.

On the reviewer side, you can also do several things.  When you are asked to review a manuscript, you should respond as quickly as possible.  If you are not able to review the manuscript, then you should suggest suitable alternates when you decline.  Finally if you do agree to review a manuscript, then you should do the best you can to provide a thorough review within the allotted time.   


azadpoor's picture

Thanks for this good opinion piece.

The worst horror case that I rembmer goes back to a few years ago (2008) when I submitted a manuscript to a journal in applied mechanics / computational mechanics. The manuscript did not receive any attention from the Editor for about two months. When I say no attention, I really mean no attention. The manuscript did no even receive a manuscript number. After approximately two months, I tried to contact the Editor to withdraw my manuscript. He did not immediately reply and at the end I had to contact the publisher to help me get the manuscript removed from the system.

Obviously, I prefer not to mention the name of the journal.

Certainly the time that it takes for an editor to register the manuscript can be significant as well.  I try to effect that within a few days for Finite Elements in Analysis and Design, but I'm not always successful.  

For some journals, I suspect the shear volume of submissions is much greater than what the editorial staff can handle within a short time frame.   

azadpoor's picture

My experience with journals outside the applied/computational mechanics area
shows that they could be much faster than mechanics journals. Some material
science and biomedical engineering journals are good examples of short review
times. The quality of review is by no means worse than mechanics journals, but
they somehow manage to get the review done in most cases within 1-2 months.

I think mechanics journals could benefit from a larger number of editorial
board members particularly board members selected from younger faculty members.
Younger scientists tend to have more time to spend on editorial
responsibilities and have more incentive to excel at the job.


ChangyongCao's picture

Thanks Prof Dolbow for sharing the review processes and problems. 

I think a short review time should be a good choice. Most reviewers could finish the review in a much shorter period.  In fact, many may wait until the last minites to review the paper.

Nayebi's picture

In my opinion long review is not always bad thing. Bad review is worst. It is better to wait for the review than having bad reviews. I had some good reviews which leads to very interesting paper for me but bad reviews make errors for the editors.

I would like to know experiences of other colleagues about not expert reviewers.

Thank you


I think that some may have gotten the impression that my objective here was to look for ways to shorten the review period.  That isn't really the case.  I was simply trying to explain to people the various factors that go into the time it takes to obtain a review.

As an editor, however, my main objective is to make sure that submissions receive a thorough review.  Sometimes that does take time to obtain and you are right, there is nothing wrong with that.   

azadpoor's picture

Many of extremely prestigious and high-quality journals such as Nature and
Science have extremely short review times. It is my feeling that engineering
journals with higher impact and quality generally have shorter review times.
Granted! There are many exceptions to this general trend. But, at least one can
safely say that long review time is not essential for obtaining good reviewer

I think a short review time is essential for maintaining high quality of
journals. If you have a very good manuscript that is written on a hot topic and
needs to be published as soon as possible, you will not send it to a journal
whose editors and/or reviewers may sit on the paper for many months. There are
often better or equally good journals with much shorter review times that you
can send your paper to.

I am aware that some journals may have limited editorial resources (time, etc.).
But as I already mentioned, there are many young and qualified people who are
willing to donate their time for optimizing the editorial process of the
journals they find interesting.

I think the review time of journals could and should be as long as it is
needed to ensure thorough review of submitted manuscripts, but not one
day longer.

"I think the review time of journals could and should be as long as it is
needed to ensure thorough review of submitted manuscripts, but not one
day longer."

Certainly.  Hopefully that is self-evident.

Regarding limited resources, it's a factor but I don't think it's a significant one for most journals.   The main factors that impact the review time are the one's I've listed: identifying suitable reviewers and then getting them to submit reviews in a timely manner.  

Thanks for starting this series of posts, John.

Do you find there to be many manuscripts that you have to reject as editor without sending out to reviewers, due to inappropriateness or poor English? I don't get as many of these to review as I used to, which makes me more inclined to accept reviews. I am interested to hear that a crucial timewaster arises from slow responses to the request to review. We should be able to say yes or no, and err towards no if we anticipate taking a while. (having said all this I should really check how quickly I have responded and reviewed for your journal!)


You are very welcome Charles.

I do indeed end up rejecting a fair number of manuscripts without sending them out for review.  Normally this is because the manuscript is not appropriate for the journal.  I believe some journals are now relying on their editorial board members to help make similar decisions.  

In general the papers in applied mechanics seem longer than many other disciplines and this might be one of the reasons for longer turn around. Here are some suggestions:

Invite one additional reviewer than required and let the automated system accept the early responders. For example, if a journal requires two reviewers, invite three. Once two out of three accept, the third one is notified that his/her review is optional. As a reviewer, I wouldn't be offended by this process.

Ask authors to go through a check list while submitting a paper. The checklist would contain items that are considered essential for a paper. Authors can choose from (Yes)/(No)/(Not Applicable). The items such as
- Spell checking and grammer
- Whether the paper highlights new contribution
- Required sections such as theory/algorithms/validation etc

Ask reviewers to submit an initial review.
- This would check some basic requirements in the paper and raise flags early in the process
- Would encourage reviewers to initiate the review
- Would provide indications to the editor whether the reviewers are active

Of course there are always trade-offs - you don't want to make the process too complicated or lengthy.

Dear Dr Dolbow, thanks for bringing this good topic up in iMechanica.

- For editor-in-chief: I think you already have a list of 'good' reviewers for a specific field. Good is, by all means, punctual and critical. I think you can make use of the list. Also, you can ask the editorial members to review. Anyway, their names are listed in the editorial board, which means they should be available to review (right?)  

- For authors: suggest reviewers who work in similar field, published similar works; whose works are cited in your manuscript; they published similar manuscipts not more than 5 years after you submit your own manuscript; give-and-take norm.

- I may be blunt, but this may be a hard truth: Are the reviewers paid? I don't think so. So, how do they get credit? Their works may not always be cited in the reviewed journals. And, their names should be undisclosed. In this case, reviewers need 'reward'. Somebody in the publishing business should think about this.



  I'm not sure why you believe an editor automatically has a list of good reviewers for a field.  That's simply not true.  Editorial board members are certainly asked to review, but the board is relatively small in size compared to the number of submissions to the journal.  

  Reviewers aren't paid in general (some journals do offer book points in return for timely reviews).  They perform a service to the community.  I think most everyone in mechanics views this service as important, just like many other duties for which we're not compensated.  

Nayebi's picture

Just another question. What an author can do if a reviewer ask his or her proposed papers to be added to the references of the manuscript? Even they are not related to the our research.


If you don't want to include the references, what you can do is to make the case when you respond to the reviewer comments.  I would simply state that you could not find a connection between the references requested and your work.  You should offer the reviewer the opportunity to clarify why he/she thinks otherwise. 

Nayebi's picture

Dear John

Thank you for your answer. I did the same but our paper was rejectted! and usually, the editors  don't read our responses and rely on the reviewer's decision.


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