In reference to a not very recent discussion on Academia.edu…

Academia.edu is a sort of facebook-for-scholars, but without the game invitations and image macros. The site allows academics to post their credentials, articles, research interests, CVs, and other details in a forum that is far more accessible and amenable to social networking than the institutional pages that some academics get. Most graduate students and independent researchers have no other way of making their presence known on-line outside of these sorts of forums. Some people on the site post questions to the general readership and one of these got me to thinking. That was a while ago, and this entry took rather longer than planned. This is aesthetically appropriate considering the nature of the original question.

Someone asked a superficially innocuous question about publishing articles and how long it usually takes for a submission to get from the author’s hands to the printed page. By analogy this question is the academic writer’s equivalent of asking about auditory effects of unattended flora rapidly precipitating earthward in dense conifer and deciduous assemblages. There is something of the Zen-koan at work here. The original question is unanswerable, and so a flood of follow-on questions pour forth.

What discipline is the paper for?
What type of journal are you submitting to?
What level are you writing for: graduate, professional, general-public, multiple peer-review?
Is the paper for a special theme issue with a guest editor?
Is the paper in response to a specific call for papers?
Is your submission ‘on-spec’ and submitted based on the general scope of the journal?
Is there quantitative components in your paper or is it based on a reproducible experiment?

Or, they ask you questions about what you are actually asking.

Are you asking how long it takes for a paper to be accepted?
How long it takes to go from the editor to reviewers?
How long it takes to get to the first review result and have those results sent to you?
How long from revision, based on feedback, to final acceptance?
How long from acceptance to publication?
How long between submission / re-submission / initial approval / final approval / electronic pre-publication / final print publication?

There is no straightforward answer to the initial question. Like so much else, it is heavily dependent on context, especially the discipline, the type of journal, the nature of the paper, the temperament of the editors and reviewers, and the patience or persistence of the author.1

The basic model for the peer-review system of publication is as follows.

1– The author either approaches an editor to ask if the paper they are working on is suitable for the journal, or the author submits the complete paper in the belief that it does fit the mandate of the journal.

2– The editor responds to the author and either accepts the paper into the review process, or rejects the paper based on the editor’s own judgement (this is usually because the author has misjudged the suitability of the article, has failed to follow the journal’s house-guide for submissions, or there is some scheduling or other administrative barrier to the submission).

3– The editor sends the submission to one or more reviewers, usually specialists in a relevant field, who are asked to provide feedback on the content and suitability of the article. Most editors give reviewers a deadline for returning reviews. Some journals provide reviewers with a sort of rubric for reviewing.

4– Once the reviews are in, the editor will make a decision on the paper, based on their personal judgement and the feedback from reviewers. At this stage, the results break down into three options:

A– Paper is rejected.
B– Paper is accepted, pending necessary changes as recommended by reviewers.
C– Paper is accepted without revision (beyond the basics of copy editing).

Option A is usually a dead-end for a submission. Some editors will send the author a simple rejection, without the possibility of revision, or even copies of the reviewers’ reports. This happened to me once, several years ago, where after about a year, and a total editorial coup-de-main at the journal, a new editor sent me a brief note rejecting my submission without further comment. I don’t know if it ever did get to a reviewer, I’ll never know anyway, I did not re-submit.

B is the usual way of things, and authors get to struggle with that other bag of onions that is the sensitive treatment of unreasonable, petty, or superficial demands for revision from well meaning or vindictive reviewers. There is an art to this stage, better described elsewhere. B can also have a B.1, -.2, -.3, where the revised submission goes back out to review, sometimes to different reviewers, who put the paper through its courses again. This produces more revisions, and the process continues or moves on to C.

Reaching option C, straight out of the review stage, is a theoretical possibility, but I don’t know anyone who has not had to make some minor changes to the substance of a paper. I guess it can happen.

For most academic authors, reaching C is the most relevant landmark. Once you are there, the paper will get published, although the mechanical process of copy editing, producing a final draft, correcting proofs, approving proofs, and final publication, electronically or in print, has its own time-scale. However, once a paper is accepted at the editorial level, the author gets to put it on his CV (with forthcoming, in place of the issue, date, and page details).

This is, with very few exceptions, the process for all peer-review journals. It fails to answer the original question; how long does this take? Within these fixed variables there is a huge range of experience in how long it all takes, and the greatest unknown is the review process.

After a few days the replies on Academia started to sound like a collection of victim impact statements in the trial of an inhuman journal editor and his sadistic band of peer-reviewers. There were authors whose submissions had disappeared into the process years ago, without so much as an initial reply from the editor, or any acknowledgement that the paper was still under consideration. One respondent said they had a paper in submission for 4 years and would have withdrawn it and gone elsewhere, if they had not forgotten what the paper was about. Others wrote about their frustration with slow reviewers, or editors who lost reports, or took months to send reports to authors while asking for 48 or 24 hour turn-around on revisions.

Submissions in the sciences, medicine, computer science, social sciences, engineering, and any other discipline where research grows stale quickly, usually enjoy a fast response rate from editors and reviewers. Scholars in those disciplines publish on a vast scale, often with many co-authors, and there is a great incentive within the discipline to make publishing work quickly. Editors know that if they are slow in reviewing and returning work, they may miss out on new and potentially significant research. Someone in materials engineering mentioned articles going from submission to publication in three months. Naturally, journals that publish research notes or initial findings which can be issued on a weekly basis get papers into print much quicker.

The humanities is another story entirely. Many journals in history are issued quarterly, but these are often half-filled with book reviews, with no more than three or four research essays each. Annual journals usually dispense with the book reviews, but may have room for 6-12 papers. Popular and influential journals can have long back-logs of submissions which are handled on a first-come, first-serve basis. One of my last submissions, to a quarterly journal, is in a queue that is now 18 months to publication. I hope the editor meant that my paper, if accepted, would not get into print for 18 months, at least that’s how I understood him. I don’t think it will take that long for my paper to get through the review process.

That paper was submitted March 1, and I don’t have reviews yet… Which reminds me, some of these horrors from Academia were partly the fault of authors. The first lesson learned from this experience is to always get an acknowledgement of receipt from the editor, and if the editor does not volunteer this information, ask directly: how long does the editor think it will take for the paper to get through the review stage.

You would be surprised how few editors reply to submissions without prompting. Once the paper is in, and you have some indication from the editor about a time-frame, hold them to it. If you don’t have reports in the time the editor indicated, call them on it, and keep doing so until you get an answer. I asked about late reviews on one of my submissions and found that the editor, whose father had recently passed away, had overlooked my submission in the midst of the family drama. She actually thanked me for reminding her about it. I got the reader report for that one about one month later.

Eventually, most of the replies to the initial Academia question boiled down to ‘results may vary.’ Authors need to be diligent in their initial approach to an editor. If an editor can’t give you at least a basic time-frame for the process you should reconsider your choice of journal.

In most cases, irrespective of discipline, a turn-around from submission to receipt of review reports should not take more than three to four months, unless the editor warns the author otherwise.2 Most editors will insist on prompt (occasionally unreasonably prompt) reply to review reports, and equally quick response to copy editing and other pre-publication changes that are needed. Much of the grief in the process can be avoided if you know when the journal’s own deadlines are. For example, The Antiquaries Journal, published annually each September, has a deadline for submissions in July of the preceding year. The Journal of Medieval Military History, also an annual journal, will accept submissions for upcoming volumes until August 31, of the preceding year. Most journals, regardless of frequency, will have some similar deadlines for each issue.

Once you have submitted your paper, you must overcome your discomfort with pestering editors. When they miss deadlines, you need to call them on it. If an editor or their reviewers take unreasonable liberties with your time, you have the right and a personal obligation to deal with it. At the last resort, ask to withdraw the submission and send it elsewhere. Don’t wait until it’s too late to do so. You did all that work in the first place with the hope that it would get published. It should be worth the effort to re-submit elsewhere. The same can be said for papers that are rejected, at any stage in the process. Few submissions are wholly without merit and it is a genuine waste of your investment to bin papers that are rejected.3 Rejection is the natural state of submissions, especially in certain disciplines. Paul J. Silvia reminded his readers that the most published authors are also, without exception, the most rejected authors. That, actually, is part of the goal for academic writers.4

My own experience is, from what I can tell, fairly representative of the time-frame for publishing in history journals.

Submission #1, to a small electronic journal with issues published irregularly, but usually four times a year:

– 1st submission in May 2010.
– Referees’ reports (2) arrived in July.
– Heavy revision of initial submission and re-submitted in Aug.
– Early Sept. editor sent an informal acceptance to publish.
– Copy edits and proofs were exchanged in Jan-Feb, 2011.
– Article appeared in the online journal May 2011.

From submission to acceptance the process took 4 months. It took another 7 months before the article appeared in the journal. Total time from submission to publication was a year. However, the paper got onto my CV 4 months after submission as forthcoming.

Submission #2, to a long established journal published annually.

– 1st submission in June 2010.
– Reviewer advised rejecting the paper based on a weak aspect in the argument. Report was sent to me in late July. I asked to revise and re-submit and the editor agreed.
– 2nd submission in Aug.
– This 2nd Referee report supported publication following revision. Revised draft send about 3 days later.
– Submission approved for publication, Feb. 2011.
– Electronic edition appeared July 2011, print edition Sept.

There was an extra step here where the paper had to go back through the review process, but that 1st stage took 7-8 months, total. It was another 5 months before the paper appeared to subscribers. The paper did appear on my CV, once it was accepted, 8 months after submission.

I have two papers in submission at the moment and I know not where they are in the process. I hope they are someplace in the review machinery and not sitting, forgotten and forlorn, in the editor’s electronic inbox. I did get replies of receipt at least. These papers are now at 3 and 4 months, respectively.

New academics or students, unfamiliar with this whole process, are easily discouraged by all the horror stories. The thought that your hard word, representing many hours of commitment, and perhaps months, or years, of research, drafting, revision, and anxiety, could be trapped in this publishing purgatory for even longer than it took to write the submission, is understandably crushing. It is, despite all hopes, the nature of the beast.

I suggest rather than worrying about the publication of your papers, you concentrate on the one deadline that is within your control, the date you submit to the editor. Once that goal is reached, turn around and start on the next project. Keep an eye on the submissions, and hold the editors responsible, but channel your time and tension into the next project. This is just about all one can do.

And on that note, I should get back to work on submissions 5-7 that really need to go out before September.

NOTES

1- For those who want to know more about this, and from a far more reliable source than some nameless entity on a WordPress blog, I recommend you read: James Hartley, Academic Writing and Publishing: A Practical Handbook (New York: Routledge, 2008). I can’t recommend Hartley more highly. I particularly like that he devoted an entire chapter to the process of choosing a title, complete with a chart describing 13 different types of title. Apparently, I prefer type 9; “titles that bid for attention using startling or effective openings” usually with a subtitle.

2- I have not pulled this number entirely out of my ass. Some journals will actually tell authors how long it takes for the reviewers and the editor to make a decision, but many don’t hazard to guess. Beth Luey advises authors to mark off a deadline, three months after submission, and if they have not heard anything from the editors, they should begin some mild pestering: Handbook for Academic Authors, 5th ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 23.

3- There are two great papers on this; S. K. Donovan, “The Importance of Resubmitting Rejected Papers.” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 38, no. 3 (2007): 151–155, and Brian Martin, “Surviving Referees’ Reports.” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 39, no. 3 (2008): 307–311.

4- I highly recommend Paul J. Silvia, How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (Washington, DC.: American Psychological Association, 2007).

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