So, you’ve agreed to review that paper from so-and-so et al. From the title and abstract, it sounded worth your time, and you really were going to do it before July 15th. But now you’ve received a reminder from editorial that you’re overdue with your report. Worse still, you’re sitting at the departure gate waiting for a flight to Chicago for a large neuroscience meeting. Your Internet connection is so slow that you can’t even download the paper anymore. And you know that once you’re at the meeting you’ll have neither the time nor peace to read and review the paper properly. What to do?
The first thing is quite simple: immediately inform editorial of your situation. Though you know that editorial has invited others to review the paper, my advice, for safety’s sake, is to assume that your report is the rate-limiting step in the decision-making process. In fact, the longer you wait the more that is true. If the review is very late, and the editor has received no communication, she or he might feel forced to invite another reviewer. But that is the worst possible scenario. It can easily take a week to get another reviewer to agree; then a further 10 to 20 days for reviewing and submitting the report– a missed review deadline can easily lead to a delay of up to one month in peer review. This sounds like a rare calamity, but trust me, it happens quite frequently. As in so many other areas, communication is key. Often, editorial can only guess at the reason for the delayed report - but as reviewer you know the reason. It is in everyone’s best interests if you are able to let editorial know immediately if a delay is likely, thus avoiding the awkward decision for editorial of when to cut its losses, but incur an even longer delay for the decision that the author is eagerly awaiting.
If you find that something unavoidable will delay your review, but you still wish to help fulfill the commitment, you could consider whether, for example, the journal is receptive to reviewer delegation and a senior post-doc in your group could perform the review instead. Always let editorial know in advance of report submission that you’ve done this. Ideally, you should request that you be de-assigned in the manuscript tracking system and that the new reviewer be assigned in your place so that he or she receives the review request and necessary background information directly.
Sometimes, suspecting a serious delay early on in the process, editorial invites a few back-up reviewers. Consider the following scenario: one of the back-up reviewers then submits an assessment relatively quickly; but in the background, the delayed reviewer has almost finished the report. Even without the delayed report, editorial has enough reports of sufficient quality to make a decision and does so – purely to avoid making the author(s) wait an undefined number of days more.
Can the delayed reviewer still contribute to the peer review of the paper? Yes. Although the submission system might now be barred for that reviewer, she/he should definitely get in touch with editorial and offer to submit the review by email. If the report is very divergent from those already submitted, this can put editorial in a difficult position – another reason not to delay! – but in the interests of thorough scientific critique, most editors will forward the report to the author(s) with an explanation. Though it would not be perceived as particularly fair to change the basic decision at this point, if a late report uncovers something fundamentally flawed or ethically unprofessional in the paper, the editor would be obliged to reconsider the decision completely. This puts the editor in a difficult position, which you’d obviously want to avoid.
So, you get the picture. Most of the problems of delayed peer review reports – while representing a disservice to the author(s) of the paper– put editorial between a rock and a hard place, because the editor is the face of the journal.
Editors are usually very understanding of all manner of genuine problems that hold up authors and reviewers. Don’t let inhibitions hold you back from admitting to a delay. And, if you have missed your deadline and have assured the editor that you still intend to submit a review, please do everything in your power to submit the review by the date you’ve promised, or earlier.
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