Dude, Where’s My Paper?

Beth Hannon

Often when authors email to ask about the progress of their paper, they begin with, ‘I’m sure you get lots of these emails…’, or words to that effect. They’re right, we do. Lots and lots, even with our pretty respectable turnaround times. I don’t mean to suggest that authors should never chase up a paper—sometimes it’s necessary—but I’d like to offer some guidance on when it is sensible to start pestering a journal about a paper. This post will also, I hope, give you a sense of the processes involved in getting a paper through the peer-review system.

The first thing to consider is whether the journal gives an estimated time to decision. Seems obvious, perhaps, but my inbox suggests otherwise. At the BJPS, our average turnaround time is 35 days. So, if you haven’t hit that point yet, there’s no reason to panic. Since the coming of the online submission system, the chances of your paper falling through the cracks—or having had any other calamity befall it unbeknownst to you or the editorial team—are vanishingly small. It’s frustrating not to have a decision and, more than that, it’s really unhelpful if you are on the job market. But yours is one of many, many papers—a fair percentage of which are written by authors in a similar position. Each paper submitted to the BJPS that goes out for peer review is getting the full attention of a minimum of five people (two Co-Chief Editors, an Associate Editor, and two referees). There’s no way around it; to do any paper justice simply takes time. That we can get decisions back to authors in, on average, thirty-odd days is the result of lots of hard work and late nights!

And on the topic of online submission systems, these can be helpful when you’re trying to decide whether to email about your paper. Many of these systems will tell you where in the process your paper is: awaiting processing, with referees, awaiting decision, and so on. Do check this out first as it will give you some idea of how to proceed. Let’s say your paper has been with the journal for close to the amount of time promised for a decision, but you see that it’s still ‘awaiting processing’ or something similar. That’s a good time to email—unless the editorial office is closed for a holiday, something has probably gone wrong. If, on the other hand, your paper’s status is ‘with referees’, cool your jets and keep reading… 

What if you haven’t received a decision and your paper has been with the journal for longer than the advertised time? Well, the first thing to remember is that turnaround times are usually based on averages; some papers take longer than others and yours may just be one of the latter. Far and away the most common reason for delays is that one or other of the referees hasn’t returned their report in the agreed time (occasionally referees explicitly ask for deadline extensions, and sometimes referees have very good reasons for being late, but alas this is all too rare—I’ll write another post on good refereeing practice soon). Rest assured, we are on the case. The benefit of the online submission system is that automatic emails are sent as soon as reports are due, and again when they are late. On top of that, anyone who has ever agreed to referee for us and not then met the deadline will be familiar with the flurry of emails I send (indeed, there are departments out there that I daren’t visit for fear of retribution for my increasingly threatening emails). However, the plain fact is that there is very little we can do about tardy referees, my passive-aggressive-building-to-outright-aggressive emails aside. Whether you view refereeing as a favour or a duty to the academic community, as editors we have neither carrot nor stick with which to encourage (/beat) referees into meeting the deadlines they agreed to (/submission). So we pester and nag and emotionally blackmail, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not.

Occasionally, a referee will explicitly pull out of looking at a paper for us. This has always been because of some very good reason: ill-health, family problems of one sort or another, or the realization of a conflict of interests or the author’s identity. We immediately look for another referee, but of course this sets the process back quite a bit. From time to time, a referee will disappear off the radar entirely. The deadline has long since passed, and repeated emails are met with silence. This one is tricky: do we continue to wait in case the referee re-surfaces with the report, as sometimes happens; or do we start looking for another referee, potentially wasting their time and our chance to use them on another paper if the original referee reappears? Whatever way we decide to go, delays are incurred. In my experience, referees reneging on their commitment without informing us is always the reason for very late papers.

If your paper’s status on the online submission system is ‘awaiting decision’ or some such thing, this indicates that the referees have come good and that your paper is back with the editorial team. But you’re not home-free just yet. Depending on the journal, there may be a number of people still to look at your paper. In the case of the BJPS, the Associate Editor gets the first look at referee reports and then writes his or her recommendation to the Co-Chief Editors. Next, the Co-Chief Editors look at the paper again, this time along with the referee reports and the Associate Editor’s recommendation. Finally, the paper is discussed in detail in our editorial meeting. These usually happen weekly, but given the various other demands on Steven and Michela’s time—they have the small matter of full-time academic jobs on top of their editorial work, after all (I’m led to believe they’ve given up on this thing called ‘a personal life’)—this isn’t always the case, and thus even if an Associate Editor has submitted a recommendation, it can take up to a fortnight for a final decision to be made.

When you bear in mind that last year we received 575 submissions, I hope it’s easy to see how all of this can very easily add up to a paper taking quite a bit of time to get through the system. I also hope it’s clear that there is no reason to panic if your paper takes a bit longer than advertised!