518 days and counting. it takes too long to get published.

Publié par Info @conpher le

“518 days and counting”

A much-repeated question appeared on ResearchGate recently. An author asked how long she should wait for a journal to notify her of acceptance – or rejection – of her manuscript. At the time of asking this question, she had been waiting for 2 years without any indication.

The conpher team recently got in contact with Dr. Lars Brenna, a postdoctoral fellow at UiT, The Arctic University of Norway. We had been drawn to Lars’ tweet from 2019, and we were curious to find out how long his hair had grown until he received his acceptance/rejection notification, or had he pulled all his hair out in frustration! See the tweet below.

Lars submitted a review article to the journal “Smart Health”, published by Elsevier in September 2017. He openly admits this was his second-choice journal after a previous rejection. Smart Health was a new journal launched earlier that year. And according to its website, is an interdisciplinary journal which publishes high-quality papers from researchers of various disciplines including medicine, computer science and engineering and bio and electrical engineering. Focus is placed on papers covering all aspects of P7 Healthcare.

Since its launch in 2017, it has published a total of 58 articles and currently displays its journal publishing metrics as:

The journal appeared to match the requirements of Lars and his co-contributors, two senior professors at UiT. Lars had prepared a review article, the kind the journal regularly published, matching the journal’s aims and scope.  

Lars picks up the story from there:

“Round 1 of reviews arrived about a year after submission. I then turned the revision around as quickly as possible and resubmitted well within the deadline. These reviews were mostly helpful, although some would have required a significant rewrite, which I thought would have changed it too much.”

After a further 6 months, Lars received the second round of reviews:

“The second round of reviews did not seem to be coming from the same reviewers. R1 seemed to be the same as in the first round, and he/she was not happy with me disagreeing with some of the comments from round one.”

After waiting 18 months and being asked to make lengthy adaptations to his manuscript, Lars made his decision to withdraw his submission. He decided instead to publish the article on the pre-print service arxiv.

Throughout the process, Lars had tried to maintain contact with the journal and its editors.

“I contacted the journal manager several times. They did apologise for the delay every time. I also emailed the Associate Editor several times. At several points, the article status changed immediately when I did that.”

Listening to Lars explain his decision to withdraw his article, you can hear his total frustration with the publishing process.

Being a postdoc means you have limited time to make something to show for. Due to this, having two small kids, co-arranging a summer school, and also getting cancer(!!) during my postdoc, I basically have very little to show for after four years.

And Lars concluded his statement with genuine pessimism:

“I have serious doubts that I will be able to continue in academia.”

Is the academic journal publishing process failing to serve our community? One study estimated that economics papers required 3-6 submissions before acceptance. Maybe Lars and his colleagues gave up too early, but would that possibly mean them waiting three, four, or maybe five years for their paper to be published.

The inefficiencies around peer-review have been well documented, not least a rejection by one journal leading to a resubmission to a new journal that starts the peer-review process from scratch again. Many publishers today offer the “cascading peer-review” – if you are rejected by one journal, the publisher offers you an alternative journal in their portfolio until your article finds an acceptance. Could this not be extended beyond internal choices? Could publishers not recommend journals published by another organisation and forward all peer-review reports with the manuscript – of course with the author’s agreement?

conpher has already discovered that 60% of rejected articles are offered the “cascade” route, but only 1 in 6 authors accept this, the vast majority preferring to select their own second choice with a different publisher and start the process all over again.

Returning to Lars’ experience, Smart Health do display a time to first decision of 15 weeks (105 days) and time to publication is 32 weeks (224 days), but if you analyse the publication statistics of each article the journal actually published you see that the average time to first decision was actually 23 weeks (161 days) and acceptance after revision averaged 30 weeks (210 days).

The longest an accepted article had to wait for notification of acceptance was 49 weeks (347 days). Maybe these stats are more valuable to academics making a submission decision. Would Lars have withdrawn his manuscript sooner?

Lars himself underlines the importance of more transparency on publication times and also statistics around rejected articles to help academics make more educated decisions on where to publish.

He also recommended a stronger pre-screening/desk decision process,

“with a quicker reject decision and recommendation to find an alternative journal”

It may not be that rejections of our articles affect us the most. We can take rejection and move on. But the length of time it takes for decisions to be made can affect grant applications, promotions, and careers. And for Lars, sadly, it has left him considering whether he has the time to spare. The conpher team wishes him well with his future career and his successful battle with cancer and hopes that by sharing his story he will help you consider your publishing options wisely and perhaps also convince editors and publishers to be more transparent about their processes and performance.

The aim of the conpher platform is to build a transparent resource, to celebrate good publication experiences, highlight poor ones, but ultimately raise the standard of the journal publishing experience for all.

We are building conpher with you and for you, so please do not hesitate to contact us – [email protected]

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