You (or someone like you) submitted a journal manuscript. Polite enquiry or a well designed journal website has provided information about how long the review process is expected 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 may even be the journal editor.
The primary reason the process takes so long is that someone like you said yes to reviewing a manuscript, put that review on a to-do list, and isn’t getting to it because there are so many other things on their to-do list. I have written numerous posts about planning, prioritizing, and saying no. This is why those things are so important.
How to respond to a request to review
When you get asked to review a manuscript ask yourself if you can realistically get to it in the next 4-6 weeks. Seriously. Look at your to do list. Look at your calendar. Can you actually do this review?
If the answer is yes, schedule time in your calendar and say yes. I mean it. Actually block off an appointment with yourself to do this. Maybe one block to read the manuscript and another to write the review. Assume this is going to be one of those difficult ones. That way if it takes less time, you suddenly have a few hours to do something else on your list.
If the answer is no, then say no. I know you have an obligation to review manuscripts. But you don’t have to review this manuscript. You can indicate that you are willing to be asked again in future but now is not a good time. I understand there are actually 2 refusal options in the online manuscript submission forms, and one of them is “I don’t have time right now.” Tick that box.
If it is a topic you really want to review, then before you say yes, figure out what you aren’t going to do to make time to actually review it. Time is finite. To say yes to this review means saying no to something else. Again, actually block of time in your calendar to do this work. That will make it more obvious what you are pushing aside to say yes and it will increase the likelihood that you will do it.
If you think there is never time
If your reaction to those suggestions is that there just isn’t enough time to do all the things you are required to do in this job and if everyone said no to manuscript reviewing on account of lack of time then no manuscripts would ever get reviewed again … well, I don’t think it is really meeting your obligation if you say yes and then don’t do it in a reasonable time, thus extending the period between submission and notification of decision.
I also disagree that there isn’t enough time. You need to take responsibility and set some priorities. That involves difficult decisions. The posts in the Planning category might help you do that. If you want to carry on as you are, all I ask is that you not contribute to the frustration of other academics who would like a decision on their manuscript in the completely reasonable timeframe of 3 months or less.
I have now incorporated some of the material in this post into Peer Review (A Short Guide), published 15 November 2019.
The Ethics of Peer Review (by Raul Pacheco-Vega; with links to other useful resources)