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I apologize if this question is too soft or if its answers would be too subjective for this site. However, I would find it highly useful to have such a question answered on this site, and I believe that others might feel this way, too.

I have certainly found a related question (see 13 months and not even one report. what would you do?) quite helpful.

My question is essentially already stated in the title. When submitting a paper, there is obvisouly some time that one simply has to wait patiently. Although I have experienced this a few times by now, I am still completely clueless about the etiquette in this case.

After how many months (or years?) do you think it is appropriate to write to the editor and kindly ask about the status of the paper?

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closed as off topic by Felipe Voloch, Misha, quid, Steven Landsburg, Benjamin Steinberg Mar 10 '13 at 22:55

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One question about this off-topic issue is bad enough. Two is ridiculous. –  Felipe Voloch Mar 10 '13 at 17:50
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@quid: This might very well be the case, but why not collect facts like that here? Its certainly possible that an answer distinguishes certain cases. I understand if one says that a question like this does not suite the site. In that case I am sorry for asking it. But I am sure a discussion about these kind of things would be very helpful to many (young) researchers. And I do think that helpful answers are possible. There must at least be some rough guidlines about this. –  E. Vargas Mar 10 '13 at 18:19
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So they aren't facts. But not only facts are helpful. Look, I understand if you argue that the question is too soft for this site. That is a question of the sites purpose. But I strongly disagree with the statement that trying to answer this question isn't helpful or doesn't even make sense. I am sure people wonder about this and even if the answers are only rough, they might help. –  E. Vargas Mar 10 '13 at 18:39
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I still don't understand your issue. Of course I get that a larger paper might take longer to review than a shorter one. But I don't see the point of including that self-evident fact in the question. What would that be good for? Just to display that I am aware of that? Many of us, I think, submit papers and hear nothing for a while. Hearing about a few guidelines (that, of course, must take some stuff into account) might be helpful. –  E. Vargas Mar 10 '13 at 19:07
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This would be more appropriate for academia.stackexchange.com. –  Ben Crowell Mar 10 '13 at 19:11

2 Answers 2

As others have mentioned, possible parameters are too wide for a one-size-fits-all answer. But here are some data points:

  • My personal default is to wait six months before inquiring into a paper's status. In other words, I have decided that not hearing anything in six months is pretty much never a surprising turn of events to me.
  • For a long paper (say over 40 pages), I might extend this somewhat, but probably not longer than nine months. For a very short paper (say under 8 pages), I might inquire at four months; but knowing me, I'd probably just wait until six months anyway.
  • Surely these durations can be decreased if one is in the position where a paper accepted or not will have a significant impact upon one's career. I think it's reasonable to write after three months, politely ask about the status of the paper, and add that you're going on the job market at time X and would be very grateful to know the decision on the paper by then.
  • Above all else, word your inquiry with the understanding that both the editors and referees are volunteering their time. Authors have the right to a timely evaluation of their paper (that comes with the agreement not to submit elsewhere while it's being evaluated), and sometimes the editors/referees just need a gentle nudge to notice that it's been a long time. But (needless to say) implying malice, laziness, or incompetence is extremely unlikely to make anything better. (Even if it's the third time around asking about a paper, when those nouns probably do in fact apply!)
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The last sentence is great. :) –  quid Mar 10 '13 at 22:16
    
I think that this is a great and very helpful answer, and I regret that it will be the last of this thread. However, as I said, I perfectly understand if this question is not considered appropriate for this site. –  E. Vargas Mar 10 '13 at 23:24
    
@E. Vargas: nothing against the answer, but still I would be curious what precisely have you learned from this answer that you really did not already know before? (This is not meant as a provocation, and I might have been overly forceful in my arguments before, only I would truly be interested what precise point is clarified now. Or how this will affect your behavior in the future. Perhaps you can convince me of the actual value of this.) –  quid Mar 10 '13 at 23:34
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This answer, for instance, would encourage me that it is perfectly fine to politely ask an editor after six months about the status of the paper. Answers like "For a paper of moderate length, I woulnd't ask unless a year has passed by", would have encouraged me to wait longer. Sometimes, it is really helpful to hear about these things, because the whole etiquette around submitting a paper still baffles me to a large extend. And I can image others feel that way as well. (btw: no offence taken, but I do appreciate the "overly forceful" part of your comment) –  E. Vargas Mar 10 '13 at 23:48
    
@E. Vargas: thank you for the explanation. On the one hand, I am tempted to say this is (implicit) in the question you linked to [the asked in may part], yet on the other hand I agree that having it explict is better. But back to the first hand, everybody there agreed that thirteen month is long, so quite a bit shorter than thirteen month is quite clear. But back to the second hand, I should likely be more patient regarding such questions, but two essentially adjacent on the front-page is a lot. Sorry for the impatience. –  quid Mar 11 '13 at 0:40

In this version, a PS has been added.

Generally speaking, the answer to the question is principally "journal-dependent" and "editor-dependent". A journal may have a policy of demanding a referee report within $x$ months (where $x$ usually, but not always, varies between 2 to 6 months in my experience), but this policy may not be faithfully implemented by an editor who is not sufficiently strict or conscientious.

Other factors that can considerably delay the refereeing process include:

(1) the length of the paper, and

(2) the "esoteric" nature of the paper (as viewed by the editor). In such cases it might take a while (e.g. several months) for the editor to find an appropriate expert who is willing to serve as a referee.

Based on the above considerations, my advice to young mathematicians is to explicitly ask the editor in charge of your paper for an approximate time-frame for the completion of the review process (ideally, shortly after the journal has acknowledged receipt of the paper). Then, if you have not heard back from the journal within the expected time-frame, make a (gentle) inquiry about the status of your paper to the editor.

PS. Some of the comments to my answer found the idea of contacting the editor to gain information about the time-frame of the refereeing process to be unrealistic and/or improper. My answer was not meant to ask authors to force editors into promises they may not be able to keep, or to encourage authors to pester editors. However, I wish to point out that an editor always has the option to offer a very general time-frame based on his/her own experience (e.g. "usually 6 to 12 months, but in the case of your paper it might be longer because of $x$, $y$, or $z$"). To conclude: those of use who have served as editors and referees know that once in a while some "nudging" is necessary, albeit with utmost politeness, and with sympathy to the thankless plight of both editors and referees.

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I do not edit anything, but I think I would find this extra correspondence annoying. And what does shortly mean? If you do so essentially upon acknowledgment of receipt, you might as well do right away to save one step. –  quid Mar 10 '13 at 18:52
    
@quid: it is one thing for the journal to acknowledge receipt, and a whole other thing, based on the two factors I enumerated, for the editor to have a reliable time-estimate (hence the "shortly after"). –  Ali Enayat Mar 10 '13 at 19:24
    
Thank you for the reply. Personally I do not consider this a good advice, but then this is finee. Could you only make precise what 'shortly after' means? I do not want to see a follow up question whether 'shortly after' is two days, a week, or a month or still something else. ;-) –  quid Mar 10 '13 at 19:40
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Speaking as someone who was once a journal editor, if an author had contacted me shortly after the standard "we got your paper" email had gone out asking when it would be refereed by, I would have been speechless! Probably I would have answered "When the referee has finished. Now go away and we'll get back to you when they get back to us.". I've known referees finish reports in under a week, and I've known them take a year. Surely the author knows that this is what happens? –  user30035 Mar 10 '13 at 20:40
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I agree that it would be a bit unusual for an editor to be asked, one week after the paper had been acknowledged, how long to expect the review to take. We all know that such information is hard to explicitly find - one has to rely on experience that many authors don't have. It's a bit sad that asking for such information directly is considered gauche. –  Greg Martin Mar 10 '13 at 21:41

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