Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Jerry A. Jacobs. Jerry is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in sociology at Harvard in 1983. He has served as the Editor of the American Sociological Review, President of the Eastern Sociological Society, Founding President of the Work and Family Researchers Network, and was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 2018-2019.
How long can I expect the review process to take? What is the journal’s acceptance rate? If the paper receives a “revise and resubmit” decision, what are my chances of having the revised version accepted? Prospective authors in my field of sociology — and I suspect in many other fields as well — often ask these questions.
I would like to suggest that journal webpages routinely provide answers to these and related questions in real time. The relevant information is readily available in manuscript management systems commonly used by journal publishers. Indeed, a few outlets – noted below – already provide some of this information on their websites. Reports required by scholarly societies provide pertinent data for selected publications; unfortunately, in addition to being dated, these documents are not widely known and not easily accessed.
Data on decision times and acceptance rates would greatly aid authors in their choice of journals. Moreover, it would help to level the playing field between “outsiders” and those who are “in the know” or who have access to those who are knowledgeable about the review process for particular publications. Finally, making this information routinely available might have the salutary effect of improving review times and standardizing other practices that vary significantly across journals and between successive editors of the same publication.
Selecting Journals in Sociology
As a former journal editor, students and colleagues often ask me for advice regarding which outlet would be most appropriate for their manuscripts. Sociologists often have a number of options to consider. Clarivate’s InCites Journal Citation Reports (JCR) currently lists 148 sociology journals. This list surely understates the set of options sociologists consider for their scholarship because many sociology publications are in specialty areas that spill over the boundaries of JCR categories. The JCR includes separate lists for criminology, demography, educational policy, ethnic (and racial) studies, management (and organizations), public administration, public health, and women’s (and gender) studies. These fields can be viewed as specializations within sociology as well as separate areas of inquiry. Further, the JCR does not include all social-science publications (for example, the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan provides a useful list of 386 journals in sociology, demography and public health, along with selected economics entries).
Given the specialized domains of many journals, the choice set facing any author for a specific submission is much narrower. In addition to whether there is a good “fit” between the paper and the journal, there are several relevant considerations. One dimension is whether a journal is “generalist” or “specialist” in its orientation. Another is the general level of prestige. In sociology, there are three or four high-status generalist publications, followed a second tier. The choice between a top-tier generalist journal and a top-tier specialist option can be a difficult one; and, in the event that a paper is not accepted during the first attempt, journal choices continue to be complex.
Another set of issues pertains to the likelihood of acceptance. The top journals in sociology publish only a small fraction of submitted manuscripts. The American Sociological Review, for example, accepts less than 10 percent of submissions. As submission rates have grown, some top outlets are routinely rejecting a considerable fraction of papers without peer review. The decision to try for a top journal thus means that an author is likely to require multiple attempts before a paper finds a home. One study estimated that economics papers require 3-6 submissions before acceptance, though I am not aware of any similar estimates in the field of sociology. Moreover, sociology articles are rarely accepted “as is.” A positive first review typically leads to a “revise and resubmit” (R&R) decision; in other words, the document is not accepted but author is invited to submit a revised version of the manuscript. Consequently, in the best of circumstances, most papers will undergo at least two rounds of reviews.
In this context, the time between submission and decision is an important consideration. This review time varies considerably across journals. Compared to most of its peers, the American Sociological Review is prompt and efficient: favorable (R&R) decisions delivered in 2018 took about 2 months (8.7 weeks) on average. Authors who submitted their papers to Sociological Theory, in contrast, had to wait almost twice as long (17.1 weeks). (These statistics are reported by the American Sociological Association in 2019).
While authors are always happy to see their work published expeditiously, there are career stages when a prompt acceptance decision is particularly valuable. Graduate students who seek a faculty position are especially keen to land a timely acceptance letter. A similar focus on the publication clock holds for post-doctoral fellows and those who are being reviewed for promotion or tenure. Timely decisions in these cases can make or break careers.
Data on decision times and acceptance rates can be obtained for nine journals published by the American Sociological Association, but this information is not featured on these journals’ websites. The report that is eventually included in the Association’s newsletter (Footnotes) can be out of date. Information that is several years old may no longer be relevant because new editors are typically selected every several years. While journal rankings tend to stay more or less stable over time, new editors may revise aspects of the decision process, such how to handle R&R decisions, in substantial ways. New editors may also differ in their efficiency and timeliness.
Many other publication outlets do not provide similar information on acceptance rates and review times. This scarcity of official information leads authors to seek guidance from their personal contacts, as Mark Granovetter’s research on the role of social networks has shown. It also leads authors to seek information on the rumor mill.
One sociological blog site illustrates the risks posed by the dearth of official information. While this blog does present some accurate information (for example, a number of blog entries complain that the review times for the American Journal of Sociology can be quite long), taken as a whole, however, the information about journals on the sociology “rumor mill” is sadly deficient. It is often quite dated.
More importantly, the comments posted to this blog generally do not provide sufficient information to allow a prospective author to know if their work is similar enough in content, style, and quality to be a valuable guide. While a guest’s ranking the quality of an Airbnb may provide information that is likely to be quite useful to other prospective guests, the heterogeneity of manuscripts makes journal commentary less valuable. In my view, the complaints posted about the review process via the sociology rumor mill provide more in the way of commiseration and less in the way of useful guidance to prospective authors.
In recent years, journal websites in sociology have become quite standardized. In addition to the journal’s impact factor and author submission guidelines, it is common to have tabs that list some of the latest articles. Data on the most read and the most cited papers are also posted.
This standardization is not surprising in light on the consolidation of the academic publishing market. A small number of organizations (Sage, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer Nature, Oxford University Press, and Elsevier) publish the lion’s share of sociology publications. Together, these organizations publish 129 of the 148 journals listed in the JCR journal category (87 percent). Three firms — Sage (53), Taylor & Francis (25) and Wiley (22) — together publish 74 percent of indexed sociology journal titles. A decision by any of these firms to revamp their websites would quickly lead to a new standard for the field.
One firm – Springer Nature – now includes review times on its web pages for selected journals. Authors who are considering publishing in Human Ecology, Human Studies, Qualitative Sociology, Race and Social Problems, Review of Religious Research, and Social Indicators Research are treated to current information on review times and time to publication. Springer Nature has not — at least not yet — provided this information for other noteworthy journals, such as Demography, Theory & Society, and The American Sociologist.
In the case of Qualitative Sociology, for example, the good news is that it takes an average of less than two months (53 days) before a first decision. The bad news is that it takes more than a year and a half (522 days) between initial submission and publication for those manuscripts that successfully wind their way through the review process. Unfortunately, authors are not provided with information about the acceptance rate, the proportion of submissions that receive R&R decisions, the proportion that receive a second R&R decision, the number of papers (if any) that do not receive a complete refereed review process, and so on.
The data needed to provide all of these statistics are embedded in the electronic manuscript submission systems – such as ScholarOne and Editorial Manager – that have become ubiquitous. In other words, making journal websites more author friendly by reporting similar data in an easily accessible and transparent way would not require any additional time and effort on the part of editors or their staffs. Publishers that seek to provide a full range of services to authors could make a significant step forward by making information on acceptance rates and decision times available to authors.
Any effort to display decision times and acceptance rates should adopt a common set of definitions. Acceptance rates can be defined in a variety of ways, depending on whether “desk rejects” and “R&R” decisions are included. The same is true for decision time. Some journals define it as the decision to desk reject or to send the paper out for review. Others use it as the time to the first accept/revise/reject decision, which can be skewed shorter by a quick desk rejection process and a very long peer review process. It would also be desirable for journals to be consistent with regard to the time frame used to calculate these statistics. My personal preference would be current data with a six-month or one-year window, depending on the volume of submissions. JCR statistics are updated once year, I suppose it would be acceptable for decision times and acceptance rates to be updated in concert with the latest Impact Factors.
Impact on the Editorial Process
Organizational metrics affect behavior, and there is every reason to expect that the routine publication of data on review times and acceptance rates would alter editors’ behavior. There has been speculation about editors’ efforts to “game the system” by enhancing their journals’ Impact Factor. My own research suggests that, however widespread such efforts might be, they have not succeeded in significantly altering journal rankings in sociology, which are quite stable over time.
One can hope for the best, namely that journals with particularly lengthy review processes would respond by taking steps to reduce review times. It is possible that editors could overshoot the mark by reducing the number of reviews required, thus risking editorial quality. In my view, the reporting of data on review times and acceptance rates on journal websites stands to substantially benefit authors and is likely to enhance the review process. Any unintended consequences in terms of altering editors’ behavior are likely to be marginal, unsustainable, and manageable side effects.