Jeromy Anglim's Blog: Psychology and Statistics

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Managing Timeframes from Initial Submission to Final Acceptance of Journal Articles in Psychology

This post discusses issues related to the managing the timeframe from an initial submission to a journal to final acceptance at that or another journal. They are personal notes that pertain to my experiences in psychology. I post them here in case they might be useful for others.


Overview of time frame

The following are very rough rules of thumb for timelines for various decisions along with ranges that cover the majority of cases.
  • Submission decision
    • Desk reject: 1 month (0 - 2)
    • Sent out for review: 3 months (1 - 5)
  • Preparing new submission
    • Make changes: 1 month (0 - 2)
    • Wait to find time (self or others), acquire more data, get new skills: highly variable length
  • Revisions:
    • Prepare revisions: 1 month (0 - 2)
    • Review of revisions: 2 months (0 - 4)
Thus, a basic formula is:
months = number_of_reviewed_submissions * 3 + 
         number_of desk_rejects * 1 +
         number_of_major_edits_on_new_submissions * 1 + 
         make_revisions_and_accepted: i.e., 3 +
         gap_time (i.e., sum of all gaps)
Thus, in summary, desk rejects don't add a lot of time and gap time can be avoided if the manuscript is high priority.
  • Accepted on first journal review (Submit, Revise, Accept): 6 months
  • Accepted on second journal review: (Submit, New Revise, Submit, Revise, Accept) 10 months
  • Accepted on third journal review: 14 months
It is natural and appropriate to aim high on the first submission. You also typically get good feedback which could be used to improve the manuscript which can take a bit of time.

Submission decision

Desk rejection

Desk rejection occurs when an editor (chief or possibly action editor) reviews the manuscript and decides that the paper is not worth sending out for review. This commonly occurs when the editor thinks the paper is an inappropriate fit for the journal. Alternatively, the editor may feel that it is not up to the standard of the journal. This can be either on novelty-interest grounds or on pure scientific grounds.
Desk rejection is typically quick. You also typically don't get a lot of feedback about what is wrong with the manuscript in general. However, sometimes you will get some feedback about areas that can be improved. Alternatively, the desk rejection can help to refine your understanding of what is on topic at particular journals.

Sent out for review

If a paper is sent out for review, you will typically receive some detailed feedback. That the process often takes around 3 or 4 months is not surprising.
  • Editor has to appraise the manuscript and determine if it should be sent out for review (1-2 weeks)
  • Editor has to contact reviewers and get agreement to review manuscript (1-4 weeks)
  • Enough of the reviewers have to have completed their reviews (8 weeks is common)
  • If insufficient reviews, then ask for more reviewers (can add another 8 weeks)
  • Editor needs to go through reviews and possibly add own review and make decision (1 to 4 weeks)
A range of decisions can be provided but the two most common are (1) rejection and (2) request for revisions (with a distinction between minor and major; and sometimes between submitting revisions and resubmitting the manuscript).

Preparing new submission

If you get a desk rejection or a rejection after peer review, this is an opportunity to revise the manuscript for a new submission. I discuss strategies for doing this later, but from a time frame perspective, there is (a) the time to make the changes, and (b) the time where the manuscript is waiting to be attended to.


Journals often have a deadline for submission of revisions (e.g., 2 months). This ensures that revisions are prioritised.

Responding to rejection

When a submitted manuscript is rejected by a journal, the manuscript in some sense returns to the status of a good draft.

Explicit reasons for rejection

  • It did not meet a requirements of the journal
    • e.g., cross-sectional self-report generally not published; not a multi-study paper; topic not really of interest to the journal; they don't publish student/non-clinical/non-industry samples
  • Not important enough
    • It is common feedback to be told that the manuscript is just not interesting enough often with a hint of what would be required to make it more interesting
    • Examples: not novel enough; sample size not large or representative enough;
  • A list of substantive criticisms
    • Is the criticism valid?
    • Does it reflect a misunderstanding by the reviewer?
    • Can the criticism be addressed? If so, how easily?
    • There are small error of expression, unclear sentences, typos, and small errors

Understanding the rejection

  • Obvsiouly, substantive criticisms can be clear. But even with these, it is useful to get a sense of which were the major reasons for rejection and which are just suggestions for improvement.
  • Other times it is possible to read into the rejection. The rejection may imply that the reviewers did not follow the argument, or did not see the novelty, or focused too much on limitations.
  • Typically the reviewer will not state everything they object to.
  • One response can be to reframe the paper.

Basic options

  • Appeal rejection
  • Discard manuscript
  • Submit manuscript elsewhere
    • no changes
    • minimal changes
    • substantive changes

Appeal rejection

In the majority of cases, appealing a rejection is a bad idea. There are many journals out there on a given topic. If the paper is good, try another one. Use the rejection to improve the manuscript. There are also many reasons why an editor will reject. It rarely comes down to a single issue that can be refuted. And if the contribution of the paper is not clear, then that is the author's fault.

Discard manuscript

Discarding a manuscript is an option. A similar approach is just to put it on hold because it has weaknesses and the time required to fix the weaknesses (if possible) is not worth the time required.
With experience, it becomes easier to judge earlier in the project life cycle where a paper might end up. If it clearly has flaws that can not be recovered, then drop the project early.

Submit manuscript elsewhere

This is the standard option.

Whether to make changes for resubmission?

  • Benefits of making changes
    • Systematically considering each change generally increases the chance of future manuscript acceptance
    • Some reviewers see it as bad faith to not make changes identified in the review process
    • Considering each change generally makes the paper better
  • Benefits of not making changes
    • Making changes takes time
    • One school of thought is that if a journal is truly interested in the work, then they will give you a "revise and resubmit" where the editor and reviewers will have their own particular changes that they want made. While there is some truth to this, I still think that systematically working through reviews gets papers closer to something that is appealing to reviewers and makes for a better paper.
My general approach is to treat a resubmission to a new journal like a revise and resubmit. I engage in the same process of responding to each point made by the reviewers. The main difference is that you don't have to be as polite to the reviewers.

Additional references on responding to rejection

Principles for minimising time to acceptance

I am leading

It is first important to distinguish papers in terms of who is leading. If you are leading a paper, then you have much more control over the following things.
  • Focus on core research area
    • This enables better journal selection
    • There are fewer gaps in the first submission.
    • The revisions are easier to write.
  • Make initial submission strong
    • Don't pursue weak projects
    • Appraise potential fatal flaws early
  • Select appropriate journals
    • Pick appropriate level of prestige, impact; lower is easier and quicker, but it is still important to aim high; perhaps if you think it has a 10% chance of being accepted in a great journal, it's probably worth a shot)
  • Learn from rejection
  • Make revisions flawless: Getting a revise and resubmit is an excellent opportunity. If you present a perfect and respectful response to every reviewer comment, then the manuscript has a very good chance of being accepted.
  • Desk rejects don't take up much time

Professional collaborator leading

The first rule is to pick good collaborators. Good collaborators should know how to write a good paper, select an appropriate journal, and be willing and able to persist with revisions and resubmissions in order to find a home for the paper.
Collaborations can also take you out of your core area and thus, you can be in less of a position to make judgements about where the article should be sent or how it should be reframed.

Student leading

When a student is leading, this creates particular challenges. In general, there is a difference between doctoral students who are learning to be independent scholars and other minor student thesis work (for me this includes fourth year and masters by course work projects).