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Journal Turn-around Times: The Slower, the Better?

- January 18, 2008

Because I’m a recently defrocked journal editor, a new analysis of journal turn-around times (that is, the elapsed time between submission of a paper and the editor’s first-round decision — accept, reject, or revise and resubmit) recently caught my eye.

In olden days, when one submitted a paper to a social science journal, one could confidently expect to wait anywhere from six months to a year, or even more, for a first-round decision. Times have changed, and social scientists now expect — and editors try to provide — much faster service.

It turns out, though, that in economics journal turn-around times have actually slowed down. Across a wide array of economics journals, turn-around times appear to have lengthened over the last four decades from two months, on average, to between three and six months.

Of course, economists think differently than normal people do, so it stands to reason that they — or at least some among them — have a rather unexpected take on this slowdown.

In a recently published paper (here, gated), economist Ofer Azar notes that at first glance the slowdown in turn-around times in economics journals seems to be “a bad outcome”: “Slower [turnaround] means that new research is disseminated to the academic community less promptly, which is a bad thing.” Nonetheless, Azar considers the slowdown a positive development. Here’s why.

Thinking like the economist that he is, Azar posits the existence of an “optimal” first-response time (FRT for short). It may seem that an FRT of zero would be optimal, or, more realistically, that the closer the FRT is to zero, the better. Not so, Azar contends: A longer FRT “reduces the costs of the refereeing process because a longer FRT reduces the number or submissions of low-quality papers to good journals.” As Azar continues:

bq. With zero FRT, and given the low submission fees in economics [or the absence of submisison fees in political science], the cost for an author of submitting an existing paper to a top journal is so small compard to the potential benefits … that it is worthwhile to do so even when acceptance chances are very low. By submitting the paper, however, the author creates a social cost: referees and editors have to dedicate their scarce time to evaluate the paper. The problem is that the author faces a private submission cost that is much lower than the social cost of submission.

bq. …Increasing the FRT can alleviate this problem since higher FRT increases the submission cost for the author. The FRT delays the publication of the paper and thus creates a cost for untenured authors who want to have publications before their tenure decisions. The FRT also creates a cost for tenured authors because promotion and salary depend on publications. The delay created by the FRT causes the author to think twice before submitting his paper to journals where he has very low acceptance chances and thus decreases the number of submissions of low-quality papers to good journals and reduces the costs of the refereeing system by saving the scarce resources of editors and referees.

There’s more to Azar’s argument than this (and even a formal model!), but that’s the core of it.

Azar’s analysis suggests a perfect excuse for laggardly reviewers to use: Rather than being too lazy to provide prompt reviews, slow reviewers should claim that they’re actually providing an important public service by being so dilatory — though I strongly suspect that they’ll find that account more appealing when they’re on the giving end, as reviewers, than the receiving end, as authors.