You (or someone like you) submitted your journal manuscript. Polite enquiry or a well designed journal website has provided information about how long they expect the review process to take. That time has passed. You’ve allowed some extra, possibly a couple of months of extra. What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks (as we Canadians like to say) is going on?!?!?!
Your role in creating this scenario
It’s not called peer review for nothing. One day you are the person waiting an unreasonable amount of time for a decision on your manuscript. Another day you are the peer reviewer who hasn’t got around to sending your review in. One day you are the journal editor.
As a journal editor, it is your responsibility to ensure that appropriate reviewers are located, and that they submit their reviews promptly so you, or your editorial board, can make a decision and communicate it to the author(s).
Chasing up errant reviewers is not the part of this job you found attractive. The email correspondence associated with this job is overwhelming. It is very tempting to push aside these more tedious aspects of the job so you can focus on your own research and writing, which is what got you into this position in the first place.
Take responsibility for what you can control
You are the editor. Finding reviewers is hard. Getting people to actually send their reviews in is hard. But it is your responsibility as the editor to make sure this happens.
Do not fob people off with a shrug of your shoulders and a reiteration that people aren’t sending in reviews. Make sure you are taking reasonable steps to get those reviews. And if they aren’t coming in, figure out what to do about it and do it.
Communicate with people. Let them know what is going on. Be understanding. Careers depend on publications. Even if you are doing everything you can, the process is long and frustrating. You are the senior person entrusted with this job, please do it compassionately.
Use the help available
If you have an editorial assistant, or the funds to hire one, then figure out how to use this person well. It is reasonable for an editorial assistant to field queries about the process, and to check on the progress of reviews and send reminders to reviewers. Communicate regularly with your assistant so that when someone contacts them they know what is going on and can reply without checking with you first on every little thing.
If you don’t have an editorial assistant, find out if someone will fund one. Possibilities include the publisher, the scholarly association who sponsors the journal, your own institution (ask the Dean first), or some combination of those. Talk to other journal editors about what their editorial assistant does, how many hours the job takes, and so on, so you can define the job clearly.
Get training in anything that will, once you know how to use it, help you do your job more efficiently and effectively. The time it takes to learn how to use the online submission software effectively, or to use a new task management system, or whatever, will be more than recouped by the time it saves you later. You are not too old to learn these things.
Allocate time for your editorial duties
I have written a lot about the importance of setting priorities and creating boundaries to ensure that you get to the things you’ve committed to. Task switching takes a lot of energy. Using your email inbox as a task management tool is ineffective and overwhelming.
Decide how much time you can reasonably spend on your journal editing duties and allocate that time in your calendar. Create a folder in your email for journal correspondence. Triage your email daily, moving things you need to deal with yourself into the folder (flagging to remember to go back to them) and forwarding things your editorial assistant can do to them. Use your allocated journal editing time to deal with what’s in the journal email and do the tasks that get communicated via email.
If you need to take a break from your editorial duties, for example to conduct research fieldwork or just go on vacation, make sure that your editorial assistant can deal with queries in the meantime and that you have a plan for dealing with the backlog when you return. If your out of office message (or the information your editorial assistant has been providing) says you will get back within a week of returning, then get back to people. Even if it’s just to provide a new date for when you will get back to them.
Develop systems for dealing with predictable problems
Everyone is busy and reviewing manuscripts often falls to the bottom of the pile. Work with your editorial assistant to develop a system for tracking where manuscripts are in the system and reminding reviewers of their commitment. Decide criteria in advance for when you give up nagging, and a plan for what to do at that point. This reduces the time and energy any given decision takes and makes it possible for your assistant to be more effective.
Also, based on conversations with clients, it seems that there is considerable variation in the use of “desk reject”. Don’t waste your reviewers time or the author’s time sending papers out for review that clearly do not fit the remit of your journal or are well below the standard required. It is not appropriate to have your assistant make these decisions. Develop a clear set of guidelines so you can do this quickly.
Note: If you are reading this and thinking “But I already do that!” then you are clearly not the problem. Carry on. You might also consider mentoring new journal editors.