Time to Decision and the Role of Academic Journals

There's a pretty good rule of thumb about organizational behavior: if an entity (1) has a measurable output and (2) someone measures it, then (3) everyone will take the resulting metric very seriously. For academic journals, "time to decision" provides a decent example of this dynamic. I put a fair amount of effort into tracking the status of submissions and worrying about how much time has elapsed. Indeed, my team of editors are likely getting a bit of sick of emails asking about the current disposition of specific manuscripts.

I can think of a lot of reasons why "time to decision" matters. With seemingly ever-increasing "publish or perish" pressures, scholars need fast turnaround times to transform manuscripts into line items under "publications" on their curricula vitae. After all, pieces that languish under review can't be sent to other journals -- and eventually, we all hope, accepted -- before hiring, tenure, and promotion periods pass. Given the growing marketplace of journals, authors have more and more choices about where to submit manuscripts. Journals that can't compete on the "time to decision" metric face, in principle, a disadvantage in receiving quality submissions. And so on.

Setting aside arguments about whether the field places too much weight on quantity of publications -- perhaps another example an easily measurable output?  -- an emphasis on "time to completion" raises interesting questions. One set involves the relative importance of the different purposes of an academic journal. Does ISQ primarily serve its association, that association's members, authors, or the broader community? For example, is it more important to make ISQ the "best" journal possible (whatever that means) or to arbitrate the fair allocation of merit (whatever that means) within international studies? These kinds of responsibilities often synergize... but they also sometimes work at cross purposes.

In this respect, the interests at stake in minimizing turnaround time prove complicated. A faster "time to decision" helps a number of ISQ's constituencies. To the extent that it improves the quality of submissions, it also improves the overall quality of the journal. But it also implies putting less effort into "hard cases" and into crafting decision letters. Both potentially harm the substance and presentation of the journal.

I'd like to see a sustained public conversation about the role of journals in a changing academic environment. The field is simultaneously fragmenting and globalizing. Research communities are becoming more specialized in their techniques, jargon, and universe of relevant literatures. As I mentioned earlier, the pressure to publish is becoming more intense while the number of journals continues to increase. The open-access movement gains steam and, along with it, the rise of predatory journals. Such trends should force us to confront basic questions about the purpose and responsibilities of established academic journals, let alone ones belonging to associations.

For now, editors play a balancing act among competing (but often implicit) imperatives. My own sense is that my most important responsibility is to shepherd a quality product. After all, the biggest factor impacting "time to decision" -- finding reviewers and getting them to submit their reviews -- isn't fully under the control of journal editors. At the same time, ISQ does have real responsibilities to the association, its members, and the broader community of scholars. So ISQ will continue to worry about "time to decision" while, when push comes to shove, not letting it trump other considerations.

For the record, our average turnaround time is around 29 days. But that includes desk rejects and transitioning "conditional accepts" to "accepts."* Excluding those categories, we are averaging around 50 days. Without running the numbers, I feel comfortable saying that most of these submissions cluster around the 40-60 day window. I am told that this is a decent timeframe for decisions. However, ISQ has the advantage of a large team to guide manuscripts through the peer-review process. We also don't require every Senior Editor to contribute to every decision. 

*I'll write something later on about how we are trying to use "conditional accepts" to ask authors to bring manuscript style, presentation, and citations practices into line with our new guidelines

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