Back in the good old days when Departments of Biology had secretaries that did the typing of formal letters, one problem always stumped me. Let us say I have a letter of reference that must be typed on departmental stationary and on the average might take about 20 minutes of typing for a good secretary. Now if I took that in today, it could be done in 20 minutes and given back to me to mail say within the hour. But in every case I can remember the turnaround time for a letter was about one week. The puzzle was that it took the same amount of time to type the letter 7 days from now as it would today, so why the delay? If it was backlog, there must be a permanent backlog or the return time would be variable not constant.
No secretaries exist today in modern universities and we all type our own letters on the computer, so why is this puzzle relevant? I suggest that it is the same dilemma that exists over referee reviews of submitted manuscripts for scientific journals. To be more specific I sit now waiting for reviews and a decision on a paper submitted 4 months ago. This is not a record I would presume, but I had another paper submitted for which the review took 6 months. Now go back to the Secretary’s Dilemma. If you are to review a paper, you could do it in say 3-4 hours today when it arrives, or put it aside for 4 months. Whatever you decide, it will take you the same amount of time to do the actual review whether now or later. So we need a set of hypotheses to explain this anomalous situation.
First of all we note that some journals like SCIENCE or PNAS will reject your paper within one day, an extreme example of the-journal-is-overrun hypothesis. If they decide to review it, I would guess you will hear something within a week or two. There are some journals that promise a decision within a short time, 2 to 4 weeks for example. These journals threaten their reviewers if they do not act within a short time. But in some cases it still takes a long time to get a decision letter, and this might be another the-editor-is-overrun hypothesis, no matter how fast the reviewers respond. Finally, many journals do not promise anything in timing, and this might be explained by the hypothesis that our-reviewers-are-overrun. This problem in turn can be a side effect of the last problem I can identify, the I-am-too-important-to-review-papers hypothesis, so that reviews fall on a small subset of ecologists rather than more evenly. One can be sympathetic to these situations since it is my observation that everyone is overrun all the time in the modern university. And everyone must publish many papers to gain a position, with many associated issues discussed by Statzner and Resh (2010).
There are some possible solutions. One is to blackball reviewers who take excessive time to return reviews. I imagine many editors do this already. Another relief valve might be to get rid of paper journals and make everything electronic. This should reduce the cost of journals and allow expanded volumes. I gain the impression that many journals have page limits set by the cost structure, so that one receives a note accompanying the review sheet that states that the journal must reject 85% of papers so that only Nobel Prize papers can be accepted. And to rub the whole process in more, some journals make you pay to publish. You do all the work, get the paper ready, and then they want money to publish it. You can see why some people start their own journal (not a solution for the faint hearted).
And finally I cannot pass on this subject without a comment about civilized behaviour on the part of reviewers. Ad hominem attacks, sarcastic remarks, and blanket condemnations have no place in any review. Journal editors should put such reviews in the garbage can. There are a few simple guidelines for reviewers, and they are summarized in a new paper by Al Glen (2014). Please read it, memorize it, and act on it when you are a reviewer.
Glen, A.S. 2014. A new ‘golden rule’ for peer review? Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 95(4): 431-434.
Statzner, B., and Resh, V.H. 2010. Negative changes in the scientific publication process in ecology: potential causes and consequences. Freshwater Biology 55(12): 2639-2653. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2427.2010.02484.x.