Peer Review During COVID-19

Scholarly publishing marches on, even in the midst of a global pandemic. In some cases, journals are playing an active role in the direct response to COVID-19, evaluating critical advances in our understanding of the virus and the care needed for those affected. In other cases, journals are simply trying to continue publishing through the chaos. In either case, journals are taking steps to adapt to the situation at hand, and we’ve collected the following practices worth considering for your peer reviewed publication.


Smoother Path for COVID-19 Papers

Many journals are prioritizing and expediting COVID-19 papers to speed up time to publication. Process changes include reduced technical checks at submission, assignment directly to Editors-in-Chief (instead of Associate Editors), and expedited production. Some journals are relying on editors and editorial board members rather than external reviewers to provide assessments of COVID-19 manuscripts in order to keep time in review as low as possible. However, this does not mean that all papers submitted are being published. Our anecdotal cases show a high rate of rejects (including desk rejects) of COVID-19 related papers, which we assume means that the quality control filters of peer review remain in place, even on compressed timelines.


Relaxing Policies and Deadlines

It may come as no surprise that journals are extending deadlines for revisions, invited submissions, and reviews. The global upending has predictably created delays for authors and reviewers as they relocate offices, close their labs, and reorganize their lives to comply with social distancing decrees. Many medical disciplines are seeing their communities called to action to provide care, meaning greatly reduced time for research pursuits. This is affecting every layer of the journal ecosystem, from authors, reviewers, and editors through editorial and production staff. As such, journals are relaxing deadlines and being more flexible with their communities as everyone adapts to the current situation.


Custom Communications

Some journals are updating their email templates, submission systems, and/or websites to inform their communities of coronavirus-related journal updates. These statements may address updated journal policies (like the above) or provide expectations about journal staff availability or the editor team’s capacity to review papers within previously expected timelines. Or it could be as simple as reminding the community that the journal continues to operate, inviting the reader to contact the journal office if they have questions.


Reaching Out to Editorial Boards for Availability

In order to continue to peer review in a timely fashion, journals may want to lean more heavily on their editorial boards than on their reviewers, who have even less availability to review than before (especially in clinical fields). Editorial offices are being proactive by reaching out to their editorial boards to assess capacity, allowing journal staff to funnel manuscripts to the people who have time to review, and reducing the delays caused by inviting someone who is unavailable to review (or even respond to the invitation at times).


Inviting Review Articles

As stay-at-home orders and office closures drag on, authors will eventually exhaust the research and manuscripts they have in the pipeline. To anticipate a possible drop in submissions, journals would do well to invite an influx of review articles and other works that do not require actively performing new research. Typically a boon to impact factor, review articles could prove to be a silver lining for journals in our troubled times. For some journals, these reviews could even focus on COVID-19 (or COVID-19-tangential) topics.


Reduce Demands on Offshore Vendors

Every country is being affected by COVID-19, including those that house the people and companies who do the bulk of the composition work for our industry. Many of these individuals are also under stay-at-home orders, and their organizations may be operating at a reduced capacity. To reduce the strain on your composition vendor, you may, for example, want to encourage journal staff and authors to limit themselves to requesting only the most critically important proof corrections or lineup adjustments while setting aside more aesthetic and other non-vital concerns. It’s vital to manage expectations during this period, and stakeholders and staff must work together to make adjustments to keep publishing through this challenging time.


The recommendations above must, of course, be couched in a sensitivity to the situation we’re all in. We are in unprecedented times. Any attempt to project a façade of “business as usual” runs the risk of striking the wrong chord with your community. To succeed, we must support each other through this crisis, even as we maintain physical distance.


We’re always trying to learn more, so let us know your strategies for publishing through a global pandemic! And stay safe out there.


Article by Michael Casp, Director of Business Development, and edited by Zachary Gillan, Editorial Client Manager.