An editorial in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology examines the editorial process in an effort to shed some light on why manuscript reviews take as long as they sometimes (often) do. In a perfect world, the journal would make an editorial decision about 3 weeks after submission. In a perfect world.
Of course, NSMB notes that their initial effort to be speedy often incurs the ire of submitting authors: once an editor is assigned to a manuscript (often on the day of submission), they decide within 1-2 days whether to accept the paper for review. If reviewers are flagged as incompetent, I’m sure these authors rejected out of hand have some choice descriptors for the editors involved. And, indeed, this would involve most investigators sending manuscripts to NSMB, where approximately 80% of submissions are not reviewed. The rationale for this selectivity is to avoid reviewer fatigue.
Among manuscripts accepted for review, the problem becomes one of finding 2-3 willing and able reviewers, a task that can take a week at NSMB (which seems relatively quick to me). Although the editors request reviewer comments within 14 days of assignment, this step can instead drag out over several weeks. Resnick et al. reported that 9.6% of their survey respondents felt journal reviewers intentionally delayed review of the assigned manuscript so as to get to press first, but the NSMB editors feel it more likely that late reviews can simply be attributed to the very busy lives of their reviewers. NSMB also notes that “when authors alert us about specific competition, we can expedite the review process to make a decision in less than 10 days after submission.”
Given the complexity of the science in manuscripts accepted for review, often journal editors must rely on reviewers with special expertise and have little recourse for their tardiness. Using only those reviewers who submit their comments promptly would result in a very small pool – which would evaporate further as these folks, burdened with more and more review assignments, realized that no good deed goes unpunished.
Thus, in an era of instant messaging and twittering, communication of science continues at a more deliberate pace to ensure the message is suitable for the target journal audience. Indeed, Bruce Alberts reminds us in Science that “publication of a scientific article is less a way for scientists to earn recognition and advance their careers than it is an engine for scientific progress” and asks that “reviewers and editors of scientific manuscripts … constantly ask themselves whether the reader has been provided with everything needed to both understand and reproduce the results.”
He goes on to note that “journals themselves can certainly set a higher bar for the clarity of presentation in the manuscripts that we publish.” I suspect the submission of more clearly and thoughtfully written manuscripts would make reviewers happier – and speedier – as well.
Alberts has a kindred spirit in Linda Cooper of McGill University, who in her letter to Nature raises the concern that “papers published today are less successful in meeting their objectives [communicating scientific discoveries] than in the past,” noting that “most published papers still compress too much information into uncomfortably short articles, leading to convoluted sentences, specialized terminology and a proliferation of abbreviations.”
Alberts in Science similarly acknowledges that “Some abstracts, full of three-letter abbreviations and jargon, are incomprehensible to me even in my own field of cell biology.”
Back across the pond in Nature, Cooper laments that such trends spill over into the electronic publishing where “online manuscripts are often bound by the same space constraints as print manuscripts.” Of course, the supplemental electronic material must also be peer-reviewed so cannot be limitless (editors must remain considerate of their reviewers), but perhaps use of JoVE and the like could lessen reviewer burden in terms of needing to plow through dense methods sections and improve the clarity of communication of scientific discovery via embedded videos.