Two weeks is a long time in science publishing

Published in Protocols & Methods

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Last week we got an email from one of our referees, who we were chasing for a report, asking a very common question not only for us on Nature Protocols but for editors in general. We ask referees to turn in their reports in 10 days, or let usknow if they need longer. “Why” asked our referee “10 days?”. He (or possibly she) went on to point out that Protocols aren’t the most time sensitive of publications and journals like Nature and Cell ask for 14 days for reviewing. Who does Nature Protocols think it is to be demanding such fast turn around times?

These are completely fair points, and the answer lies not in an overinflated opinion of our importance, but rather the psychology of the journal/referee relationship. A Protocol doesn’t have quite the same time pressure that primary research papers do, although many of our authors don’t seem to agree.

To start to answer this question there isn’t any real difference between 10 days and 14 days. Essentially editors ask for a return of a referees report in 2 weeks. The precise number reflects whether we are talking about calendar or working days; what we all mean is 2 weeks. Why not say 2 weeks then? Well we’ve found that some referees read 2 weeks and hear “2 clear weeks” or “the end of the week after next”, and so 2 weeks gets interpreted as 3.

Why 2 weeks? This is a mainly pragmatic call unrelated to how fast we actually need the reports back. Sure we aren’t going to worry too much if it takes 3 weeks or even a bit more to get a report back. But we do want to get a report back and we don’t want prospective referees to take on reviews if there isn’t a realistic chance of them getting the review done in less than a geologic age. Bitter experience has taught us editors that 2 weeks is about the longest time over which an average scientist can make an accurate estimation of their workload.

When you ask for 2 weeks the potential referees thinks “I’m not crazy busy at the moment, I can manage that” and chances are that the report will get written, albeit delayed by circumstances beyond their control, in something . If you say more than 2 weeks referees will think “well I’m crazy busy at the moment but it should get better soon so I should be able to do the review in a couple of week’s time” and they say ‘yes’. More than likely though things will turn up and things will still be ‘crazy busy’ in 2 weeks, and in another 2 weeks, and in another and so on. We end up doing what we hate, which is hassling referees who are helping us out of nothing more than altruism.

That’s probably more about the psychology of the editor/referee relationship than you need to know, but it does seem to be a counter-intuitive fact that the more time you offer a referee to do their review, the less likely it is that the referee will be able to complete the review anywhere close to that deadline.

So when an editor asks a researcher to review a paper in 10/14 days they are asking please can you review this paper in approximately 2 weeks, because if you can’t commit to reviewing within half a month then you shouldn’t be deceiving yourself; you haven’t time to review it at all.

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