November 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 7

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Manuscript Review Strategies

David Brunsma, Virginia Tech; Monica Prasad, Northwestern University; Ezra Zuckerman, MIT

In August 2011 the ASA Council appointed an ad hoc committee to investigate manuscript review times in journals. The subcommittee identified several areas in need of improvement, such as presenting more accurate measures of editorial lag statistics. Another recommendation was that ASA interview reviewers nominated by editors as unusually skilled and then create and publicize a document summarizing these reviewers’ strategies for reviewing articles thoroughly and in a timely manner. The subcommittee’s full report on “best reviewer practices” is available at www.asanet.org/about/Council_Reports.cfm. After identifying the standout reviewers of ASA and non-ASA journals, the three of us conducted these “interviews” over email with a total of 26 reviewers. We asked:

  1. How long does it take you to review a manuscript on average, counting only time actually spent reviewing the manuscript (i.e., only the net work time)?
  2. Are there standard things that you look for, or standard issues that crop up with manuscripts?
  3. What are your strategies for reviewing the manuscript quickly?
  4. What are your strategies for reviewing the manuscript thoroughly?

We note that, because we did not attempt to identify average or poor reviewers and compare them with these good reviewers, we have no way of knowing whether these good reviewers’ stated strategies actually contributed to their reputation for providing high-quality, fast reviews. Our aim in this project was not to assess causation, so much as to start a conversation on this central but invisible task of our profession. As one respondent noted, “Manuscript reviewing must be one of the most important, least formally trained professional functions that we serve.” Our reviewers’ thoughts and strategies may suggest ideas for others on how to accomplish this central task.

Although the responses do not reveal a silver bullet that can reduce manuscript review times, the responses suggest that good reviewers see the task of reviewing as part of the life of the mind rather than a burden; that they schedule the hours it will take to conduct the review as soon as they accept the invitation to review; that they focus on big picture issues rather than long lists of problems, such as “how the argument holds together; connections between argument and analysis; methodological clarity and appropriateness”; and that many of them have a set list of things they look for in manuscripts, even going so far as to cut and paste text into their reviews. Average time spent on reviews was 3.4 hours (excluding one reviewer who claimed to spend 24 hours per review). But we were interested to note that a few of these reviewers nominated by editors as good reviewers spend very little time on individual reviews, in some cases an hour or less. Several reviewers suggested that the review process could be sped up if editors gave reviewers less time to conduct the review and sent prompt reminders.

In addition to the full report, all of the reviewers’ original comments, redacted for anonymity, are available at www.asanet.org/documents/asa/pdfs/Review_Times_in_Sociology.pdf  following the full report.

 

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