Understanding peer review: My first 12 months as a journal editor

Understanding peer review: My first 12 months as a journal editor

After my first year as an Academic Editor at PLOS One, I’ve learned a lot about the peer review process, including what happens to my own papers when I submit them for review, and why sometimes it takes longer than you expect to get reviews back.

Getting editorial experience. How do early-mid career researchers find access to editorial experience? I have no idea what the norm is. But I think access to mentorship in this process is a critical gap for early career researchers. Not only does it enable early career researchers to contribute a vital service to their research community, it also gives us an opportunity to gain some perspective on the editorial process when we submit our own papers for review.

I’ve been reviewing papers for about 6 years, across more than 30 journals, but the editorial process was a mystery to me. I’d applied numerous times to the open calls for associate editors from British Ecological Society journals without luck, and very few other journals advertise for editorial roles.

A year ago, PLOS invited me to handle a revised paper as a ‘guest editor’ because, as one of the peer reviewers, I had done a thorough review of the original version and the previous handling editor was no longer available. After handling this one-off paper, I was then invited to join permanently as an academic editor. I’m so grateful for the experience!

In the 12 months I’ve been an editor, I’ve handled 14 papers (two still under review). These come to me as invitations from the admin office, similar to how peer review invitations work. I declined more than 30 other papers because I didn’t have the time or expertise to handle them. All stats below are from my own editorial record, and are not indicative of the journal overall.

When the author submits their paper, it goes to the admin office for preliminary checks, who then invites suitable editors to handle the paper. Whichever editor accepts first, gets the paper to handle – but this can drag on for a while until an invited editor responds. This is good to know, next time you’re wondering why your manuscript is taking so long to be reviewed.

  • Average days until a manuscript was assigned to me as editor: 14
  • Average number of editors invited before me: 22
  • Record number of editors invited before me: 60
  • Record number of days until assigned to me: 34

Inviting reviewers can take a while. Once I’ve accepted the handling invitation, I then start inviting peer reviewers. This takes me a couple of days, as I need to have a quick read of the paper first: (a) to determine if it’s suitable to send for review, and (b) to identify the most appropriate reviewers.

Reviewers are given 6 days to reply to the invitation, so I wait until they decline or the 6 days is up (whatever comes first) before I invite the next potential reviewer. As a reviewer, I accept or decline a peer review invitation within ~24 hours of when I get it, so I was surprised at how long this process took as an editor.

  • Total reviewers invited across all papers: 49
  • Average number of reviewers invited per paper: 4
  • Record number of reviewers invited: 10
  • Decline rate: 33%
  • Accept rate: 49%
  • No response rate: 18%
  • Average time to respond to invitation: 2.6 days

Peer Review Week Story-telling Contest


It is totally fine to decline a review invitation! But do it quickly so the editor can move on to inviting others. I’ve heard some academics gloat proudly that they delete all journal invitations without reading them because they are too busy. Please don’t do this. It takes an extra 5 seconds of your life to click on ‘Decline invitation’…but those 5 seconds of your time are worth a thousand times more in service to your research community.

If you can, please also suggest an alternative reviewer. You don’t have to do this, but I do appreciate people who decline with an explanation, i.e. on holidays, parental leave etc. (I am more likely to invite those people again in future, compared to no response/declines without explanation). I also appreciate when they suggest an alternate reviewer (only four reviewers out of 16 did this).

As an editor, I don’t care how long you take to review, as long as it is thorough and reasonable. PLOS has a default review deadline of 10 days. I don’t think this is enough incentive to get good reviewers to accept, so I extend all my invitations to 14 days. In reality, I don’t care if you take longer… just let us know! Some reviewers go AWOL, despite constant reminders from the journal office, which just holds up the process for everyone. If you are already registered to review a manuscript, you will not be kicked off for a reasonable extension request. Life happens, and we are all human – please tell us if you need more time.

  • Average days to submit review: 14

Who are the reviewers? My priority as an editor is always to find the ‘most appropriate’ reviewer for the subject matter. But I’m also very conscious of seeking female and early career researchers that fit that criteria in the first instance. With this goal in the forefront of my mind, I’m happy to find that I’ve ended up with equal gender distribution for the completed reviews I’ve received. The number of high-quality non-tenured reviewers is great to see too.

  • Number of male invited reviewers: 24
  • Number of female invited reviewers: 25
  • Number of tenured invited reviewers: 16
  • Number of non-tenured invited reviewers: 33

This context is also interesting when considering who accepts and who declines. Female invitees were the most common non-responders; and non-tenured researchers were the most common accepters of review invitations. Otherwise, distributions were pretty even.

  • No response: 6 female, 3 male; 3 tenure, 6 non-tenure
  • Decline invitation: 7 female, 9 male; 8 tenure, 8 non-tenure
  • Accept invitation: 12 female, 12 male; 5 tenure, 19 non-tenure

Thank you to all the awesome reviewers who have accepted and contributed awesome reviews, and the wonderful journal staff who have assisted me along the way! I’m looking forward to seeing how my stats evolve over the next year.

Dr. Manu Saunders is a Research Fellow at the University of New England. This blog post was published on Dr. Saunders’ blog, Ecology is not a dirty word (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.

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