Josh has just posted an excellent entry about time and reviewing in our field, and judging from the lengthy comment I left there, that entry pushed one of my buttons.
JM and I were hanging out with a colleague recently, and the colleague, a seasoned scholar with lots and lots of publications, mentioned in passing that it's getting to the point where it's faster these days to take a book through publication than it is a journal article. Think about that for a minute.
Unfortunately, it's not an exaggeration. I want to register a plea, not to peer colleagues, or colleagues who have been in the field longer than I have, but for colleagues who are just now, or have not yet, started their first jobs, who are only now beginning to receive requests to review. Chances are if that is you, you have waited months and months (and months) to receive word about a journal submission. You are, as a result, under the impression that this is how things go in the field, and so when you get your first, second, and third requests to review for journals, you take your time. You are, after all, overwhelmed with work. And this is, after all, the norm.
I'm writing to you to ask you to PLEASE not think that way. Let's put a stop to this trend. It may well take a long time for an article to go from submission to print, but let's not let it be because reviewers are dragging.
Journal reviewing is important work, work that maintains the quality of scholarship in the field. And those who agree to do it ought to be committed not just to maintaining or elevating that quality, but also to a principle of timeliness. And people ought to do this not for the sake of their own careers and reputations (but there is that, and I ranted over at Josh's about it so won't repeat those points here)--but more importantly in the field. Now my presumption is that all rhetorical scholarship is timely, and perhaps that is a faulty assumption. But there are articles that lose something--exigence, relevance of examples--if they are left too long to languish. And Josh cuts to the vital issue of timeliness in his post--the exigencies of tenure and promotion. But there is also an issue that tracks right back to quality: the issue of helping scholars to improve their work--and pronto. If someone submits something weak and is left for nearly a year without feedback, then they are most likely continuing to work on more pretty weak scholarship. But if they got some considered feedback after, say, six weeks, that is presumably less wasted time. In other words, ideas themselves ought not be left to languish.That goes for good ones too. Why make a fascinating idea/method/approach wait any longer than it needs to to get out into the world? Making A HUMAN takes less time than making a journal article, for crying out loud.
One of the main criteria for selecting editors (apart from vision, intellectual leadership, and all the rest) ought to be: is this person willing to be a pain in someone's balls? Can ze squeeze a review out of a slow-ass person?
It's very likely that a large majority of reviewers get their reviews in on time, but too many accumulated anecdotes point to a band of rogue reviewers who are by turns forgetful, irresponsible, or (my favorite) too exacting. ("I need to spend a little more time with this essay." It's not YOUR article, and your brilliance, while handy, is not THAT central. While scholars might benefit from 8 single-spaced pages of feedback 18 months later, chances are a couple of pages synthesizing the issues and making useful suggestions for revision or new directions in a month would be VASTLY more helpful. Stop kidding yourself and get the damn thing in.)
In any event, there is probably more to be said here--like the issue of overburdening responsible reviewers that I also mentioned at Josh's--and we have ALL suffered from recalcitrant reviewers. But to those early in your careers, and if I'm lucky, anyone else in the field: let's all approach reviewing as the thoughtful and timely art it ought to be.
I wish it were that easy--to beg people to be reflective about time (their own and others'), but as long as such unreasonable waiting remains something of a rite of passage, slow reviewing is likely to continue.