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Who’s to blame (or credit) for fast peer review?

Peer reviewers, too, are an important part of unlocking the literature.

Lately around the blogosphere and Twitterverse, I’ve been seeing an increasing number of folks complimenting open access journals on their quick turnaround for peer review–or blaming open access journals for slow review. Fast turnaround is an excellent thing, no doubt, and slow turnaround is a bad thing. However, the implication of some of these statements is that open access publishers are doing things quicker (or more slowly) than non-open journals, simply by the virtue of being open access (or being PLOS or PeerJ or choose your favorite publisher). I’m not convinced of this, and here’s why.

Peer review is done by peers. Not by journals, not by content management systems, not by the paid editorial staff at the journals, not by the numerous volunteer editors. Based on my experiences as a volunteer editor at two different open access journals (full disclosure: PLOS ONE and PeerJ), author on papers submitted for numerous other journals, and conversations with colleagues, at least 80% of a speedy turnaround rests with the reviewers.

If a reviewer finishes his or her review in a timely fashion, you’re probably going to get your paper back in a timely fashion. If the reviewer drags his or her feet for six weeks, you’re going to have a slow time of it. Now, the journals and editors can help things along, by nagging tardy reviewers (I’m getting better at this with more experience). Journals can also set short but reasonable deadlines (perhaps 2 weeks rather than 4 weeks, for instance). But at the end of the day, it’s up to the reviewer to be on time.

Our implicit standard for what makes a “good” reviewer rests on their fairness, expertise, thoroughness, and timeliness. Timeliness in turn is dependent on a few other factors–personal schedules and manuscript length in particular. It’s not terribly reasonable to expect a reviewer to submit their review in 10 days if those days span Christmas and New Year’s. Neither would I expect a 10 day turn-around for a 150 page manuscript (some reviewers have surprised me, though!). On the other hand, if a reviewer accepts an invitation, they should be willing to do the work on deadline (or pretty darned close to it). It all comes down to the “Golden Rule.” I’m annoyed when my paper sits in reviewer limbo for three months; why should I subject someone else to these sorts of delays, if I can help it?

So, are open access journals any better or worse than non-open journals? This is an inherently testable claim (particularly when journals post relevant data), but for now I’m going to speculate. For one, I think it depends a lot on the paper itself (particularly length). For another, reviewers may be more excited about reviewing particular papers or for particular journals. Maybe some reviewers are quicker for open access journals. Note that in all cases the responsibility is largely with the reviewer! Journals can help this along, though, by selecting reviewers known to do a good job in minimal time, and avoiding reviewers who chronically delay things (note that we all have our slow times, though!). But, the reviewers rule in this system. Timeliness depends on them. Let’s not forget it.*

*Some might argue that this is a strike against pre-publication peer review. I’ll freely admit that slow reviewers are a problem, but I’m on record elsewhere in favor of pre-publication peer review, coupled with liberal use of preprint servers, is a good thing. I trust my own work more after it’s been reviewed, and hold others to the same standard.

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