Ask everyONE: Length of the Review Process

Here is our featured author question for July.

 

Q: I have just submitted a manuscript to PLoS ONE. How long will the review process take?

A: Our authors often ask us how long it will take before they receive an initial decision on their submission to PLoS ONE and we appreciate that having worked on the research for months or years, authors are often anxious to receive news of the suitability of their manuscript for the journal as soon as possible—we endeavour to ensure that the review process is efficient, as well as rigorous. The following information should help to clarify what happens to your manuscript after submission.

1)     In-House Quality Control (Tech Check). All new submissions are quality checked by our editorial staff, who look both for technical criteria (for instance, do all the manuscript files open correctly?) and content-related criteria (for example, have the authors appropriately declared any potential competing interests?). See our earlier blog post for more detail on this process and for some tips to help your manuscript clear this stage as swiftly as possible. Be aware that we may well need to send the manuscript back to you with requests for more information, which must be provided before we can proceed, however we try to get this check completed within a few days of submission (depending on your response times to our questions). It is only once a manuscript passes QC that we consider it to be formally submitted into our system (as until that point there may be problems with the submission that would prevent us starting the peer review process).

2)     Section Editor Assignment. Most manuscripts are assigned to one of our Section Editors. The main role of the Section Editor is to assign the paper to an Academic Editor (AE) who will handle the review process. At present we do not have a Section Editor to cover every subject area in which we publish but the editorial staff will assign an AE if there is no Section Editor in the field. Authors can recommend appropriate Section Editors via their cover letter. The  process of Section Editor assignment normally takes 1-2 days, although sometimes one of the PLoS staff editors may wish to discuss the paper internally at this stage before proceeding with the review.

3)     Academic Editor Assignment. The peer review of each manuscript is handled by one of our editorial board members, who acts as the AE. We ask authors to suggest suitable AEs when submitting their manuscript to help us to assign it to an AE as quickly as possible. As a general rule we would encourage you to suggest as many suitable Academic Editors as possible – you are asked to suggest some at the time of submission, but please feel to add as many suggestions as you like to your cover letter (we do read the cover letter!). The length of this part of the process can vary depending on the number of AEs we have within a particular discipline and also depending on the time of year (our AEs are often busiest during the summer period, the winter holiday season and in the run-ups to NIH grant deadlines).

4)     Peer Review. PLoS ONE allows AEs to make a decision on a paper in three ways: 1)  by soliciting formal reviews from external referees; 2) by reviewing the manuscript themselves, based on their own knowledge and expertise; and 3) through consultation with other members of the editorial board. Inevitably, the length of the review process will vary depending on the route the AE uses to make a decision (although about 90% of papers are sent to review by  external experts—see our website for more information). We ask authors to suggest potential referees when submitting. We may or may not use those suggestions, at the discretion of the Academic Editor. We ask external reviewers to submit their reports within ten days (although, of course, referees do sometimes ask for more time) and as soon as the AE has received all of the expected reviews, they are prompted to log on to our manuscript submission and send a decision to the authors.

On average, these four stages take about a month, in total, although, of course, because this is an average, the peer review of some manuscripts will inevitably take longer than this and it can be difficult for us to make any guarantees as to how long the process will take for a specific manuscript. If you would like to check on the status of your manuscript during the review process, you can do so by logging on to the manuscript submission system or by contacting plosone [at] plos.org (quoting your manuscript tracking number).

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5 Responses to Ask everyONE: Length of the Review Process

  1. This post should have been so much more informative… You showed the average, but what about the median and standard deviation? What about seasonality? What percentage of papers require substantial revisions? I’m getting ready to submit a manuscript, and the answers to these questions would be very helpful to decide where to send. I’ve noticed that a lot of papers in PLoS ONE take over 6 months from submission to publication—why?

    I hope you can answer at least some of these in response…

    Thanks.

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  2. Juan

    I suspect you will find that very few other journals provide this information in a public way. One of the reasons is that the process for each paper is unique and there can be many factors in the peer review process etc.

    In many ways, we are being more transparent than most: we made this post and we provide more detailed information at: http://www.plosone.org/static/review.action

    To give illustrative answers to your questions – of the 1,520 papers which received a first decision in the second quarter of 2009 (April – June), the mean time from QC completion to first decision was 33.4 days, the median was 30 days and the SD was 18. This is for all decisions across all the fields in which we publish. Finally, 90% of finally accepted papers undergo at least one revision.

    If, as you are making your submission decision, you find comparable statistics for other journals I would love to see them.

    I can tell you that there is seasonality. Right now, for example, we are in a period where many academics are on vacation or at conferences or finalising grants, and therefore it is very hard to find reviewers.

    The reason you see some papers take 6 months from submission to acceptance is because they are being revised and re-submitted by the authors (and we have no control over how long the author takes for that step). The 6 month period therefore goes through: initial submission, first decision, revision, resubmission, re-evaluation (and possible iterations depending on how good the revision was), and production.

    Finally, the figures above are only illustrative, and should not be taken as any sort of ‘guarantee’. You may submit a ‘perfect’ manuscript and move through each step much more rapidly…

    Pete

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  3. Hi Pete,

    Thanks for responding so quickly. I agree that PLoS is more transparent than other publications, but since PLoS is viewed as a revolution in scientific publishing (a view that you yourselves have encouraged—see your recent tweets), one expects something more than incremental improvements over conventional journals’ standards of openness. Look at Data.gov for a nice model.

    Of course you are right to point out that many other journals don’t even provide averages, so my choice now is whether to decide that PLoS’s statistics are good enough, or to take a gamble with other journals. My point is that your post didn’t really give me enough info to do even that. Many journals do provide some average info—see for example http://nar.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/36/15/4821 for NAR’s equivalent writeup (equivalent to your post, not to your more detailed response).

    I think we can both agree that the publication world would be a better place if all of this information were made freely available.

    Thanks again,

    Juan.

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  4. Kumar Sukhdeo says:

    Interestingly, Juan’s paper was published in PLoSOne within 4 months of submission even though it was submitted in October (right before the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season). I guess it all worked out in the end.
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0008898

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  5. Krbin says:

    Do you have more recent figures which shows the average time required after submission is done? Thanks.

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