Some Things Last A Long Time

How long does it take to publish a paper?

The answer is – in our experience, at least – about 9 months.

That’s right, it takes about the same amount of time to have a baby as it does to publish a scientific paper. Discussing how we can make the publication process quicker is for another day. Right now, let’s get into the numbers.

The graphic shows the time taken from submission-to-publication for papers on which I am an author. I’m missing data for two papers (one from 1999 and one from 2002) and the Biol Open paper is published online but not yet “in print”, but mostly the information is complete. If you want to calculate this for your own papers; my advice would be to keep a spreadsheet of submission and decision dates as you go along… and archive your emails.

In the last analysis, a few people pointed out ways that the graphic could be improved, and I’ve now implemented these changes.

The graphic shows that the journey to publication is in four eras:

  1. Pre-time (before 0 on the x-axis): this is the time from first submission to the first journal. A dark time which involves rejection.
  2. Submission at the final journal (starting at time 0). Again, the orange periods are when the manuscript is with the journal and the green, when it is with us. Needless to say this green time is mainly spent doing experimental work (compare green periods for reviews and for papers)
  3. Acceptance! This is where the orange bar stops. The manuscript is then readied for publication (blank area).
  4. Published online. A purple period that ends with final publication in print.

Note that: i) the delays are more-or-less negated by preprinting provided deposition is before the first submission (grey line, for Biol Open paper), ii) these delay diagrams do not take into account the original drafting/rewriting cycle before the fist submission – nor the time taken to do the work!

So… how long does it take to publish a paper?

In the top right graph: the time from first submission to being published online is 250 days on average (median). This is shown by the blue bar. If we throw in the average time it takes to go from online to print (15 days) this gives 265 days. The average time for human gestation is 266 days. So it takes about the same amount of time to have a baby as it does to publish a paper! By contrast, reviews take only 121 days, equivalent to four lunar cycles (118 days).

My 2005 paper at Nature holds the record for the most protracted publication 399 days from submission to publication. The fastest publication is the most recent, our Biol Open paper was online 49 days after submission (it was also online 1 day before submission as a preprint).

In the bottom right graph: I added together the total time each paper was either with the journal, or with us, and plotted the average. The time from acceptance-to-publication online is shown stacked onto the “time with journal” column. You can see from this graphic that the lion’s share of the delay comes from revisions that we must do in order for a paper to be published. Multiple revisions and submissions also push these numbers up compared to the totals for reviews.

How representative are these numbers?

This is a small dataset at many different journals and so it is difficult to conclude much. With this analysis, I was hoping to identify ‘slow journals’ that we should avoid and also to think about our publication strategy (as much as a crap shoot can have a strategy). The whole process is stochastic and I don’t see any reason to change the way that we navigate the system. Having said this, I can’t see us doing any more methods/book chapters, as they are just so slow.

Just over half of our papers have some “pre-time”, i.e. they got rejected from at least one other journal before finding a home. A colleague of mine likes to say:

“if your paper is accepted at the first journal you send it to, you sent it to the wrong place”

One thing for sure is that publication takes a long time. And I don’t think our experience is uncommon. The pace of scientific publishing has been described as glacial by Leslie Vosshall and I don’t disagree with this. I think the 9 months figure is probably representative for most areas of biology. I know that other scientists in my field, who have more tenacity for rejections and for slugging it out at high impact journals, have much longer times from 1st submission to acceptance. In my opinion, wasting even more time chasing publication is crazy, counter-productive and demotivating for the people in the lab.

The irony in all this is that, even though we are working at the absolute bleeding edge of science with all of this technology at our disposal, our methods for reporting science are badly out of date. And with that I’ll push the “publish” button and this will be online…

The title of this post comes from ‘Some Things Last A Long Time’ by Daniel Johnston from his LP ‘1990’.

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5 responses

  1. […] weaknesses that affect precision is that 1) a year is a long time and 2) publication is subject to long lag times. The analysis would be improved by categorising the records based on the month-year when the paper […]

  2. […] And this he did. The point of the story is not the one people often quote it for. The point is that Einstein was right at being surprised to have the paper reviewed, because in those days, papers were not reviewed; certainly not in the manner that we do and understand today. Editors needed papers, often commissioned papers, and while they might make editorial comments, they certainly did not share the papers with anybody else. This type of review applied to the Watson and Crick paper and to the plethora of papers that form the basis of molecular and cell biology. However, as the number of scientists and papers increased and the material for publication began to accumulate, together with specialization, we start to see something more like the peer review process of today. Nature introduced a version of it in 1953 and implemented the seeds of what we have today in 1967. But The Lancet only introduced it in 1976! And with this small step, of a fair system to control the quality of what is published a complex machine is set in motion that today is a very complicated business, which can keep your paper going around in circles for up to two years in the high end of the market….the notion of high end of the market is, also a new development….basically, all has gone pear shaped. For a nice account of the life span of an average paper see S. Royle’s blog “some things last a long time” (https://quantixed.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/some-things-last-a-long-time/) […]

  3. […] What is not factored in here is the time spent waiting to get something published – see here. The early part of getting a lab going is tough, however you can see that once we were […]

  4. […] interest in publication lag times continues. Previous posts have looked at how long it takes my lab to publish our work, how often trainees publish and I also looked at very long lag times at Oncogene. I recently read […]

  5. […] (https://quantixed.wordpress.com/); in the context of this post, I particularly like this one: https://quantixed.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/some-things-last-a-long-time/. The point is that in science, but particularly in the biological sciences, something very […]

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