I frowned as I looked up from the computer. Yet another author complaining about the long turn-around. It had been six months since the author submitted his paper to the journal. That does seem like a long time. However, I didn't quite know how to reply. I am not a lazy person. I don't let submissions sit in the inbox for weeks. As soon as I receive them I start searching for qualified referees. But sometimes referees are hard to come by. I frequently invite 10 referees before finding two who will actually do it. At that point a couple of months have already passed. After yet another month I might receive the referee reports but sometimes the referees are late. In some of those cases, reminder letters help. At other times I am forced to uninvite the referees and find new people. After another couple of months, I may be able to make my decision. This decision then has to be approved by the editor-in-chief. Our editor-in-chief, Hannes Leitgeb, is super-fast and very efficient. But it is nonetheless another step on top of everything else.
I looked at the email again. A part of me felt I shouldn't apologize. I didn't do anything wrong. But I took a deep breath, hit the reply button and typed "I apologize for the delay in reaching a decision. We are still waiting for one reviewer to finish her report." I knew the author wasn't going to be happy to hear this. He was ready to go on the job market and desperately needed a publication. I couldn't tell him that the first report was positive and that his chances were good. A negative, second report can lead to a rejection, for example, if the referee demonstrates a major flaw in the argument.
I felt terribly bad for the poor student. But what could I do? Things were not within my control and yet I was responsible for the outcome. That's an awful combination. A demon takes over your body and you witness yourself commit a murder. Journal editors commit murders every day. They are always to blame. Why is that? Being an editor for a journal is a very time-consuming process. Most of us don't receive any monetary compensation for our work. Our departments don't give us teaching releases or additional research assistants. Most of us are journal editors on top of everything else we do.
Instead of blaming editors, I think we can all do our best to improve the current situation. I have offered suggestions on several occasions in the past. However, I think they are worth repeating. So here we go:
1. You ought to referee at least twice as many papers as you send to journals or volumes. Nearly every time you send a paper to a journal, two referees will be involved in refereeing your paper. This typically is also the case when you contribute an invited paper to a volume. So think about this next time you are requested to referee a paper.
2. Don't wait a month or two before you submit your referee report. I guarantee you that in 99 percent of cases you won't be less busy in a month or two. Complete the report right away.
3. Don't feel obligated to write pages and pages of comments. We trust your judgment or we wouldn't have contacted you in the first place. Explain in a paragraph or two why the paper should be published, revised or rejected. Of course, we are grateful when you do provide several pages of comments (and the authors are thrilled). But if forced to choose between refereeing a paper quickly or providing substantial comments, referee the paper quickly.
4. Respond quickly to refereeing requests. Responding typically just requires clicking on a link. It's not a time-consuming process. Please do not just abstain from responding. After a week with no response we might send you a reminder. After yet another week we might uninvite you. But that's two weeks wasted as opposed to one or two days.
5. Don't decline to referee a paper merely because you know that you cannot complete the report within the 4 weeks mentioned in the letter. If you really can't do it in 4 weeks, ask the editor for a couple of extra weeks.
6. Don't issue a revise and resubmit if you feel that it is unlikely that a revised version of the paper will make the cut. Also, don't issue a revise and resubmit if you are not prepared to review the paper again. In those scenarios, reject the paper. It will save the author time.
7. If you must turn down an invitation to referee a paper, suggest one or two names of alternative referees. Please don't mention the obvious referees. Chances are that we already asked them. Give us a couple of names of people who work in the area and are really good but who are still relatively unknown. This will save us a lot of time, sometimes weeks, sometimes months. If you want to be really helpful, supply the email of your suggested referees. There was a post over at Leiter Reports, in which a young philosopher complained about this practice, thinking it would lead to corrupt blind review and that the editor normally is in a better position to find a referee. Both of these points of view rest on on a mistake. No editor can be an expert in all areas of philosophy. It's just not going to happen. Furthermore, the corruption the young philosopher is entertaining is bound to take place regardless of whether the editor follows a recommendation or not. So these just are not good reasons for not throwing a few names out there.