Sometimes, even simple things can make a big difference. An Elsevier project designed to reassess reviewer and revision times is large-scale, involving 1,100 journals. Yet we are focused on one small aspect: optimizing the deadlines we give authors and reviewers.
The idea was born at Cell Press, where we decided to look at what would happen if a journal set its review deadline a few days earlier. Results were encouraging: reviews did indeed come in earlier, and there was no difference in reviewer response rates. Meredith Adinolfi, Production Director at Cell Press said:
"What excited me most about this project was seeing how a small change could make a big difference."
Recently, via a controlled experiment on the Journal of Public Economics, we also received confirmation from the scientific community that shorter review deadlines can work. You can find out more in the article How small changes can influence reviewer behavior in this issue.
Building on the lessons learnt at Cell Press, we made an inventory of deadlines across all of our titles. Some journals did not mention any. We also found titles where contributions were routinely received well before the stated deadline. And then there were journals that were still using timeframes from the days when manuscripts were physically sent around the world and back, with deadlines extending up to a year! For journals publishing on arctic geology in the 1980s, this may well have been understandable, but with today's instant communication, a new policy was due.
Whereas speed has always been important, that importance is increasing in today's publishing environment. In the past, even if an article was ready, it may still have had to wait for backlogs to clear and issues to be complete. Today, we aim to publish articles online as quickly as possible after they are accepted. So a day saved in peer review, means a day quicker online!
So, how did we set our new deadlines? Our first principle was not to disrupt existing practices. Some fields are slower than others, and usually there is a good reason for this. Other journals are already very fast, and there is little gain in asking contributors to submit within 4 days instead of the existing 5. So we looked at actual reviewing and author revision times, and at stated deadlines, and we used these as a starting point. The biggest gains were to be found in author revision times, where articles can sometimes linger for months. We then came up with proposed new deadlines, and consulted with the editors. As a result, new reviewer and revision deadlines were implemented at the beginning of the year for around 600 titles.
It's still early days, so we do not yet know what the results will be. We are keeping a close eye on measurable items, such as response rates, compliance, and submission-to-acceptance times. But qualitative feedback is equally important. Ultimately, we hope that this initiative will speed up the publication process, while keeping all participants satisfied.
Arnout Jacobs has been in academic publishing since 1997 and joined Elsevier in 2003. Starting as a desk editor, he moved on to manage a portfolio of neuropsychology journals, working closely with the academic community to keep the journals relevant and author-friendly. In 2005, he moved to China to establish a large editorial office that helps editors, e.g. with commissioning special issues. In 2008, he took on a business development role, working with customers from India to Japan. He is currently Director, Publishing Services in charge of the team that implements journal innovations on ScienceDirect and in the editorial system.