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For scholarly journals, “time to publication” is more than just a performance metric to track. Any fluctuation in the number of days it takes for new articles to be published will directly affect how soon novel research findings can reach the people who need them and start having impacts both in and outside of academia. Now especially, as researchers race to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded of the importance of rapid research dissemination.

Of course, peer review and publishing should not be unduly rushed. However, with ingenuity and attention to detail, there are many aspects of journal operations that can be optimized to cut down publication time. In the past, we’ve talked about steps to streamline production workflows to reduce time to publication, including the benefits of following a rolling publishing model and tips to reduce handoff steps between peer review and production. In this post, we’re dialing back to look at ways to decrease days to manuscript decision. Below are four ways to streamline peer review to speed up time to publication.

Document and iterate on peer review policies and procedures

At the core of an efficient peer review process is clear editorial policies and procedures. It’s important for journals to not only include high-level peer review policy information on their websites but to also maintain more detailed policy and procedure documentation that editors can reference as needed.

While documenting editorial processes may seem like a lot of upfront work, particularly if you feel like your team is already well aligned, there are many time-saving benefits to doing so. Documenting your editorial processes will help bring to light current or potential workflow bottlenecks that need to be addressed. It will also create a point of truth for your team to reference as you update journal policies and procedures to meet new requirements.

Depending on the academic disciplines you serve, your editorial processes and documentation may have to evolve more rapidly to keep up with changing research norms and funder requirements. For example, as Peer Review Manager at the American Society for Microbiology Jasmine Wallace explained in her recent article, “Editorially Surviving an Outbreak,” in unique situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, editorial teams may find themselves having to stay abreast of shifting research taxonomies or developing funder access requirements. It’s vital to not only verbally communicate these kinds of updates but also document them, with links to supplemental guides as needed, so editors can find the latest information fast.

Look for ways to optimize technical checks

As you’re documenting editorial processes, be sure to focus on the amount of time your team is spending on technical checks. Technical checks should not significantly draw out a manuscript’s time to first review. Yet, that can become the case if editors front-load too many technical check steps that could and should be pushed to later in peer review. Early on in the submission process, it’s important to stay focused on the primary goal of technical checks, to ensure manuscripts meet core journal criteria, and not get bogged down with too many stylistic concerns.

Editorial teams should pick the top factors that will make or break a manuscript’s chances at acceptance — such as the presence of an abstract, data availability, necessary ethical disclosures, etc. — and push all other checks to first revision. The benefits of this are two-fold: editors can (1) move manuscripts into peer review faster and (2) improve the author experience by avoiding instances of asking some authors to make extensive formatting changes only to have their submission rejected a short while later.

Make clear communication your number one priority

Peer review speed depends on more than just everyone working quickly. By default, peer review is a dispersed process with many actors involved. To keep everyone working synchronously, clear communication is vital. Breakdowns in the communication of journal processes or expectations will cause peer review delays and frustration.

At most journals, the bulk of communication comes in the form of process documentation, including those editorial policies and procedures we covered before, as well as guidelines for authors and reviewers, and of course lots and lots of emails. Often, one of the main causes of delays in peer review is people searching for information they can’t easily find, particularly authors and reviewers. One of the best steps that journals can take to reduce peer review time is to take stock of existing process guides and email templates and identify opportunities to refine their structure and contents.

Starting with process documentation, editorial teams should regularly assess editor, author, and reviewer guidelines to look for opportunities to improve the way peer review steps are communicated and add any missing information. We provide detailed best practices for author instructions here and reviewer guidelines here. Some basics to keep in mind include:

  • Make sure manuscript formatting and peer review information is consistent across all editor/author/reviewer guides (when possible, try to avoid presenting the same information in more than one place, so you have fewer updates to make when changes arise)
  • List process steps in sequential order, so they’re easy to follow
  • Focus on pairing pages down to key information and breaking up big blocks of text with headers or bullets
  • Anticipate FAQs and proactively link out to additional information, such as linking to journal OA policies from your For Authors page

Moving to email templates, journals should similarly take steps to ensure accuracy and consistency of information across emails and pair down lengthy text as much as possible, so key information doesn’t get buried. To keep emails short and informative, journals should link out to process guides with more detailed information whenever possible, such as adding reviewer checklist links to reviewer invitation and assignment emails.

Take steps to avoid reviewer burnout

A constant conundrum for most editors when trying to speed up peer review is finding and retaining responsive reviewers, particularly when dealing with large influxes of submissions. This is another reality we’ve seen magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, as coronavirus experts face a deluge of review requests.

While journals can’t control the number of peer reviewers available to them, they can take steps to lighten the load they place on referees to prevent reviewer burnout. The best way for journals to do this is to ensure manuscripts have a clear shot at publication before sending them out for peer review — reviewers should never be the initial screen for submissions.

Once manuscripts undergo first-round technical checks, they should move to an academic editor for an initial assessment to decide whether the submission should be sent out for peer review or be desk rejected. Many journals have come up with innovative ways to structure their editorial teams and manuscript screening processes to make these desk reviews as expeditious as possible, including recruiting graduate students to do initial manuscript readings and flag ones with obvious inaccuracies before they move to lead editors.

In addition to doing initial manuscript screenings, journals can help reduce their reviewer workloads by limiting the scope of feedback reviewers have to provide. For example, journals can guide reviewers to focus on research accuracy and substantive feedback and not to worry about wording or formatting particulars. You can find more examples of steps journals are taking to speed up peer review in our free eBook, Academic Journal Management Best Practices: Tales from the Trenches.

Putting it all together

Across disciplines, rapid research dissemination is a top priority for scholars and the communities they serve. The need for speedy manuscript review and publication is one we’ve seen augmented by world events in recent years, with the COVID-19 pandemic being the latest example. It’s up to journals to take steps to streamline their operations wherever possible, to cut down on publication time so research can start having impacts sooner.

We hope these tips will help you continue optimizing your peer review workflows! We invite you to share any questions or additional suggestions in the comments section below!